We often hear to ‘be here now’. Yet the mind is rarely tied in place. We make mental forays into our past, rethink what happened yesterday or when we were kids, or we project into an imagined future: tomorrow’s dinner date, the trajectory of our career at age 50.
Rather than deviating from the norm of conscious presence, this tendency to internally visit other timelines called “mental time travel” is common; young adults, for example, think about their future on average 59 times one day. psychologists have suggested that this ability to travel through time is from the confines of our own heads a fundamental aspect of what it means to be human.
The past and the future are not locations that stay the same no matter who comes to visit and when. The way we imagine our past or future is constantly changing, and the construction of these scenarios affects what we do and how we think in the present. Until recently, the study of mental time travel has largely focused on individuals and their personal histories. But this does not reflect the social nature of our lives. Identities are made up of groups that nest within each other. We are part of our families and circles of friends, professional networks, countries and nations and ethnic groups. The study of mental time travel is beginning to reflect this: When we travel through time, we don’t always go alone.
Research into ‘collective mental time travel’ shows that the way we envision the collective future or the collective past also influences the present. It can influence attitudes towards policy decisions and laws, as well as how people feel about their country or existing systems. It can affect a person’s willingness to engage in prosocial behavior such as voting, donating, or activism. Therefore, collective mental time travel is more than just a fun cognitive trick – it offers the opportunity to be more intentional about how we represent the collective past and future.
In the 1980s, psychologist Endel Tulving proposed that humans have the ability to relive their past and pre-experience the future, theorizing that the same memory mechanisms were used for both. This was supported by case studies of amnesia: One man, “KC,” had brain injuries that affected his ability to retain personal memories, such as visiting a family home on the lake. This patient could not imagine going there in the future, despite knowing that his family owned the house.
More recently brain imaging has supported Tulving’s theory by showing that similar networks are activated in remembering the personal past and the personal future, said Karl Szpunar, an associate professor of psychology and director of the Memory Lab at Toronto Metropolitan University. Based on this evidence, some scientists think we imagine the future by combining past experiences – this is called the “constructed episodic simulation hypothesis.”
For the collective past and future, the story can be more complex. Is our collective future simply made up of fragments of the collective past? Intriguingly, when people with damage to their hippocampus, a brain region involved in personal memory, have been asked about collective future events, such as “What environmental problems will the world face in the next decade?” she to be come up with answers. While their ability to mentally travel through time to their personal future was compromised, the ability to imagine events affecting a group’s future was intact. More work is needed on this, but as Spzunar and his colleagues wrote, “The ability to engage in collective future thinking appears to rely on cognitive processes different from those involved in individual or personal forward thinking.”