Memories Are Crucial for Looking Into the Future

By Carl Zimmer, Discover magazine

The past and future may seem like different worlds, yet the two are intimately intertwined in our minds. In recent studies on mental time travel, neuroscientists found that we use many of the same regions of the brain to remember the past as we do to envision our future lives. In fact, our need for foresight may explain why we can form memories in the first place. They are indeed “a base to build the future.” And together, our senses of past and future may be crucial to our species’ success. Endel Tulving, a neuroscientist at the University of Toronto, first proposed a link between memory and foresight in 1985. It had occurred to him as he was examining a brain-injured patient. “N.N.,” as the man was known, still had memories of basic facts. He could explain how to make a long-distance call and draw the Statue of Liberty. But he could not recall a single event from his own life. In other words, he had lost his episodic memory. Tulving and his colleagues then discovered that N.N. could not imagine the future.

“What will you be doing tomorrow?” Tulving asked him during one interview. After 15 seconds of silence, N.N. smiled faintly. “I don’t know,” he said.

“Do you remember the question?” Tulving asked.

“About what I’ll be doing tomorrow?” N.N. replied.

“Yes. How would you describe your state of mind when you try to think about it?”

N.N. paused for a few more seconds. “Blank, I guess,” he said. The very concept of the future, seemed meaningless to N.N. “It’s like being in a room with nothing there and having a guy tell you to go find a chair,” he explained.

On the basis of his study of N.N., Tulving proposed that projecting ourselves into the future requires the same brain circuitry we use to remember ourselves in the past.

Read the article.

Photo courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.

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