The ability to remember the past and imagine the future can significantly affect a person’s decisions in life. Scientists refer to the brain’s ability to think about the past, present, and future as “chronesthesia,” or mental time travel, although little is known about which parts of the brain are responsible for these conscious experiences.
If we suspend our past beliefs about time and accept that the brain is capable of reaching into the future, the next question becomes “how does it do this?” Chronesthesia or mental time travel is little known to people and the neuroscientists are busy with studying those parts of the brain that are responsible for these conscious experiences.
Last year a group of researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the neural correlates of mental time travel and better understand the nature of Chronesthesia in which the metaphorical travel occurs.
They found out that Chronesthesia consists of two independent sets of processes: 1) those that determine the contents of any act of such travel: what happens, who are the actors, where does the action occur; it is similar to the contents of watching a movie– everything that you see on the screen; and 2) those that determine the subjective moment of time in which the action takes place–-past, present, or future.
When you remember something that you did last night, you are consciously aware not only that the event happened and that you were there, as an observer or participant (“episodic memory”), but also that it happened yesterday, that is, at a time that is no more. The question that is raised here is, “how do you know that it happened at a time other than ‘now’?”
The researchers asked several subjects to repeatedly think about taking a short walk in a familiar environment in either the imagined past, the real past, the present, or the imagined future. By keeping the content the same and changing only the mental time in which it occurs, the researchers could identify which areas of the brain are correlated with thinking about the same event at different times.
The results showed that certain regions in the left lateral parietal cortex, left frontal cortex, and cerebellum, as well as the thalamus, were activated differently when the subjects thought about the past and future compared with the present. Notably, brain activity was very similar for thinking about all of the non-present times (the imagined past, real past, and imagined future). Chronesthesia, by definition, is a form of consciousness that allows people to think about this subjective time and to mentally travel in it. The new results suggest that the brain’s ability to conceive of a subjective time is in fact necessary to explain how we think about the past and future. There seem to exist brain regions that are more active in the (imagined) past and the (imagined) future than they are in the (imagined) present.
It may be early to talk about potential implications or applications of understanding how the brain thinks about the past, present, and future. But their findings may be extended to other conditions, situations and probable implications or applications.
Many scientific discoveries were once considered outlandish and more suited to science fiction. Future research is greatly needed to explore the exact reasons for Chronesthesia, especially if it is going to be experienced in a trained manner. There may be a kind of relationship between physical and neural processes that are taking place in our neural systems. I remember an explanation that may help to understand the potential connections.
Modern quantum physics has demonstrated that light particles seem to know what lies ahead of them and will adjust their behavior accordingly, even though the future event hasn’t occurred yet. For example, in the classic “double slit experiment,” physicists discovered that light particles respond differently when they are observed. But in 1999, researchers pushed this experiment to the limits by asking “what if the observation occurred after the light particles were deployed.” Surprisingly, they found the particles acted the same way, as if they knew they were going to be observed in the future even though it hadn’t happened yet.
Such trippy time effects seem to contradict common sense and trying to make sense of them may give the average person a headache, but physicists have just had to accept it. So although humans perceive time as linear, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is so. And as futurists, we shouldn’t let out preconceived beliefs and biases influence what we study, even if these preconceived beliefs reflect our basic assumptions about how time and space work.
Does all of time really co-exist simultaneously? Is the way we experience time (with one moment following another) just an illusion? Are all moments of time hanging around together? Is our consciousness threading its way through moments of time? Are there an infinite number of variations of each possible moment? And if there are, what is the true nature of “parallel universes” just as what we’ve seen in the science fiction movies such as Dr. Who? And above all, how a conscious experience of Chronesthesia may help us finding appropriate answers for mentioned questions?
We may not be enough sure about the practical aspects of Chronesthesia in the coming future, but there is one way to perceive them. It’s our intuition (or imagination). We can tune our mind into a talent we haven’t fully mastered with, but would love to, and we can attract it to us.