The Durk Pearson & Sandy Shaw®
Life Extension NewsTM
Volume 19 No. 6 • July 2016


Mental Time Travel

One of Sandy’s books on memory (The Memory Process, MIT Press, 2011) covers a lot more than just memory. It roams far and wide, with fascinating material on such things as imagination, the language of music, consciousness, romantic fiction, dreams, and a lot of other stuff, just what you might expect from a well-done book coming out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (note: MIT’s publications on politically “sensitive” subjects are not necessarily so well done).

In this heavily referenced book, there is a discussion on how thinking about the future uses virtually the same neural pathways as does remembering the past, being appropriately called “Mental Time Travel.” It is also called “episodic future thinking” by Alan Richardson, author of Ch. 13 of The Memory Process, pg. 280, who concludes that thinking of the future and past share common neurological mechanisms.

A very informative description of how memory works is given on pg. 290: “Episodic memories ... tend to reflect personal experience rather than general knowledge or implicit skills...” These memories are depicted as being “fragmentary and fragile” and are used to “reconstruct” memories from bits and pieces put together in a creative process rather than storing “exact replicas of past experience.” The beauty of this system is that it enables the bits and pieces to be reused in new, original combinations, both for recreating the past and for imagining the future.

A 2007 published study is described in the book (pg. 279) in which researchers found that amnesic patients with damage to the hippocampus had a diminished capacity to imagine hypothetical future scenarios, something that is also seen in normal aging. It is easy to see how an inability to see what might lie ahead, particularly if it involves any rewarding events, could lead to apathy concerning whether you live or die. The “will to live” is a vital factor in remaining alive and has been shown to be important in the length of time patients with terminal diseases survive.

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