When you are not here now: How to understand psychological time travel

Photo courtesy of Harvard.edu | Daniel L. Schacter recently spoke at Smith about memory.

Photo courtesy of Harvard.edu | Daniel L. Schacter recently spoke at Smith about memory.


Maddy Kulke ’19
Contributing Writer

“Be here now” is an increasingly popular 21st century mantra. With practices of mindfulness proliferating in popular culture, most of us have been told that the present moment is a place we should be more attentive to. Still, if you’re like me, you would find that hard sometimes. Everybody likes to feel present, but we can’t expect to “be here now” all the time. “Now” is a pretty minuscule amount of time in the grand scheme of our lives, and as it turns out, the time that we spend living in the past has some pretty important implications on our future.

In Daniel L. Schacter‘s talk on March 31, “Memory and Imagination: Functions of Episodic Simulation and Retrieval,” the Harvard Professor of Psychology shared his latest research on the mechanics of psychological time travel.

Schachter‘s research dates back to the early 1980s, with one of the most severely amnesic patients ever to be recorded in literature. Amnesic patient KC had suffered a head injury that left him unable to recall memories from his past. What peaked Schacter’s interest, however, was that KC had a parallel inability to imagine the future. When asked about what he might do tomorrow, KC would draw a blank.

Further case studies and fMRI research corroborated Schachter‘s hypothesis: the same brain regions that control our ability to remember the past allow us to imagine the future.

The next obvious question for Schachter is how this link in neurological machinery relates to our conscious experience of memory and imagination. Schachter believes that the duality of remembering and imagining might help us to rethink one of the most problematic and controversial areas of psychological research: false memories. While we often experience our memories as hard data, Schachter and numerous other researchers have found that the human subconscious frequently and easily constructs half-true or completely false recollections of the past. These subconscious half-truths go on to be experienced by the conscious with all of the sensory detail and perceived accuracy of “real” memories.

For Schacter, the creativity that contributes to pitfalls in the brain’s remembering and imagining process is not necessarily a glitch of human evolution, but an adaptive measure. His studies show that episodic simulation (the sequential stories that we experience as remembering our past or imagining our future), can have a host of positive benefits on our ability to come up with novel solutions to problems, reduce anxiety and even incentivize ourselves to work on long-term goals.

In other words, the mechanism that allows memory to morph and construct sets of recorded data into complex, personal narratives is the same mechanism that allows us to imagine and plan the future.

So is there some perfect ratio of creativity to fact-accuracy that we could program into our brains to optimize our ability to imagine novel future scenarios, while reducing the number of confabulated details of the past? Just like the golden ratio of kale fiber to carrot sugar for vitality, happiness and overall immortality? Probably. Most likely. But we are not smart enough to do so yet and won’t be for sometime.

Schacter‘s research can help us to better understand how dependent one’s future plans and life trajectories are on memory of past experiences. The stories and plot structures of our past, which we replay in our memories, are the same ones that we will know how to employ in future scenarios. Schacter’s research, however, also implies that humans have a built-in ability to create stories that work for us. We allow the underdog to defy all odds and become the hero. We allow ourselves to be the main character, even when events make us feel insignificant. So the next time that you decide to leave the present moment for a while and reflect on the past, be attentive and notice your authorial voice. The stories we create out of our past have a direct impact on the ways that we will live out our future.

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