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Apr
29th
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The time machine in our mind. The imagistic mental machinery that allows us to travel through time

            

Our ability to close our eyes and imagine the pleasures of Super Bowl Sunday or remember the excesses of New Year’s Eve is a fairly recent evolutionary development, and our talent for doing this is unparalleled in the animal kingdom. We are a race of time travelers, unfettered by chronology and capable of visiting the future or revisiting the past whenever we wish. If our neural time machines are damaged by illness, age or accident, we may become trapped in the present. (…)

Why did evolution design our brains to go wandering in time? Perhaps it’s because an experience is a terrible thing to waste. Moving around in the world exposes organisms to danger, so as a rule they should have as few experiences as possible and learn as much from each as they can. (…)

Time travel allows us to pay for an experience once and then have it again and again at no additional charge, learning new lessons with each repetition. When we are busy having experiences—herding children, signing checks, battling traffic—the dark network is silent, but as soon as those experiences are over, the network is awakened, and we begin moving across the landscape of our history to see what we can learn—for free.

Animals learn by trial and error, and the smarter they are, the fewer trials they need. Traveling backward buys us many trials for the price of one, but traveling forward allows us to dispense with trials entirely. Just as pilots practice flying in flight simulators, the rest of us practice living in life simulators, and our ability to simulate future courses of action and preview their consequences enables us to learn from mistakes without making them.

We don’t need to bake a liver cupcake to find out that it is a stunningly bad idea; simply imagining it is punishment enough. The same is true for insulting the boss and misplacing the children. We may not heed the warnings that prospection provides, but at least we aren’t surprised when we wake up with a hangover or when our waists and our inseams swap sizes. (…)

Perhaps the most startling fact about the dark network isn’t what it does but how often it does it. Neuroscientists refer to it as the brain’s default mode, which is to say that we spend more of our time away from the present than in it. People typically overestimate how often they are in the moment because they rarely take notice when they take leave. It is only when the environment demands our attention—a dog barks, a child cries, a telephone rings—that our mental time machines switch themselves off and deposit us with a bump in the here and now. We stay just long enough to take a message and then we slip off again to the land of Elsewhen, our dark networks awash in light.”

Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Essay: The Brain: Time Travel in the Brain, TIME, Jan. 29, 2007. (Illustration for TIME by Jeffery Fischer).

Kurt Stocker: The time machine in our mind (2012)

                                            
                                          (Click image to open research paper in pdf)

Abstract:

"This article provides the first comprehensive conceptual account for the imagistic mental machinery that allows us to travel through time—for the time machine in our mind. It is argued that language reveals this imagistic machine and how we use it. Findings from a range of cognitive fields are theoretically unified and a recent proposal about spatialized mental time travel is elaborated on. The following novel distinctions are offered: external vs. internal viewing of time; “watching” time vs. projective “travel” through time; optional vs. obligatory mental time travel; mental time travel into anteriority or posteriority vs. mental time travel into the past or future; single mental time travel vs. nested dual mental time travel; mental time travel in episodic memory vs. mental time travel in semantic memory; and “seeing” vs. “sensing” mental imagery. Theoretical, empirical, and applied implications are discussed.”

"The theoretical strategy I adopt is to use language as an entree to a conceptual level that seems deeper than language itself (Pinker, 2007; Talmy, 2000). The logic of this strategy is in accordance with recent findings that many conceptualizations observed in language have also been found to exist in mental representations that are more basic than language itself. (…)

It is proposed that this strategy helps to uncover an imagistic mental machinery that allows us to travel through time—that this strategy helps us to uncover the time machine in our mind.

A central term used in this article is “the imagery structuring of time.” By this I refer to an invisible spatial scaffolding in our mental imagery across which temporal material can be splayed, the existence of which will be proposed in this article. At times it will be quite natural to assume that a space-to-time mapping in the sense of conceptual metaphor theory is involved in the structuring of this invisible scaffolding. (…)

It is thus for the present investigation more coherent to assume that mental time is basically constructed out of “spatialized” mental imagery—“spatialized” is another central term that I use in this article. I use it in the sense that it is neutral as to whether some of the imagery might be transferred via space-to-time mappings or whether some of the imagery might relate to space-to-time mappings only in an etymological sense. An example of temporal constructions that are readily characterized in terms of spatialized temporal imagery structuring are the conceptualizations underlying the use of before and after, conceptualizations that are often treated as having autonomous temporal status and as relating only etymologically to space.

The current investigation can refine this view somewhat, by postulating that spatialized temporal structures still play a very vital role in the imagery structuring underlying before and after. (…)

The theoretical strategy, to use linguistic expressions about time as an entree to conceptual structures about time that seem deeper than language itself, has been applied quite fruitfully, since it has allowed for the development of a rather comprehensive and precise conceptual account of the time machine in our mind. The theory is not an ad-hoc theory, since linguistic conceptualizations cannot be interpreted in a totally arbitrary way—for example language does not allow us to assume that a sentence such as I shopped at the store before I went home means that first the going home took place and then the shopping. In this respect the theory is to some degree already a data-guided theory, since linguistic expressions are data. However, the proposal of the theory that language has helped us to uncover a specific system of spatialized imagery structuring of time can only be evaluated by carrying out corresponding psychological (cognitive and neurocognitive) experiments and some ideas for such experiments have been presented. Since the time machine in our mind is a deeply fascinating apparatus, I am confident that theoretical and empirical investigations will continue to explore it.”

— Kurt Stocker, The time machine in our mind (pdf), Institute of Cognitive and Brain Sciences, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA, 2012

See also:

☞ T. Suddendorf, D. Rose Addis and M C. Corballis, Mental time travel and the shaping of the human mind (pdf), The Royal Society, 2009.

Abstract: “Episodic memory, enabling conscious recollection of past episodes, can be distinguished from semantic memory, which stores enduring facts about the world. Episodic memory shares a core neural network with the simulation of future episodes, enabling mental time travel into both the past and the future. The notion that there might be something distinctly human about mental time travel has provoked ingenious attempts to demonstrate episodic memory or future simulation in nonhuman animals, but we argue that they have not yet established a capacity comparable to the human faculty. The evolution of the capacity to simulate possible future events, based on episodic memory, enhanced fitness by enabling action in preparation of different possible scenarios that increased present or future survival and reproduction chances. Human language may have evolved in the first instance for the sharing of past and planned future events, and, indeed, fictional ones, further enhancing fitness in social settings.”

☞ George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, Conceptual Metaphor in Everyday Language (pdf), The Journal of Philosophy, Vol 77, 1980.
Our sense of time is deeply entangled with memory
Time tag on Lapidarium notes