Our ability to mentally separate from the present is what Harvard University researchers Randy Buckner and Daniel Carroll refer to as self-projection or, more colloquially, mental time travel. The psychologist Endel Tulving, a pioneer in memory research, is credited with first acknowledging the uniquely human ability to decouple ourselves from the present environment.
Self-projection enables us to travel both backward and forward through time. We might relive a past argument with a spouse scene by scene, or imagine how we will behave in an upcoming job interview. Recently, neuroscientists have discovered a shared neural architecture underlying these mental simulations. The pattern of brain activity elicited as we engage in cognitive separation from the present has become known as the default mode network.
With travel restrictions and mandatory social distancing, people may feel especially compelled to practice self-projection. At my last socially distanced gathering, three friends and I huddled together in below-freezing temperatures on the patio of our favorite restaurant in New York. We gathered in an attempt to catch up after the holidays. In the glow of the overhead heaters, we went around the table with each person answering the question. When the borders open and it is safe to travel, where will you go?
This question sparked much excitement. Voices rose as someone shared his intention to travel to Costa Rica to finally take a crack at surfing the Playa Grande, a popular destination for surfers. We traded past travel stories, laughing about the time one of us swam, screeching, through bat infested caves in Playa del Carmen, Mexico.
In that moment, we saw the blue of the ocean and we could taste the cold cerveza served at the local beach bar. We indulged each other by listening to plans to travel to far-flung destinations. For an instant, we were no longer present, but, rather, transported to another time and place.
If we imagine ourselves on the beach in Costa Rica, it feels like we are there. We can almost smell the ocean and feel the sun on our skin. We leave behind the current world to simulate and experience a different one.
Projecting ourselves to a desired future moment can serve as a much-needed escape. But it can also be profoundly inspiring. If we can conjure up a clear image of an ideal future moment — say, as we complete a marathon or hike the Inca trail in Peru — achieving that goal might feel more tangible and attainable. The idea is that if you can conceive it, you will achieve it. William James, a seminal figure in psychology, said, “Anything you may hold firmly in your imagination can be yours.”
In the 1998 article “Harnessing the Imagination,” Shelley Taylor and her UCLA colleagues argue that the act of mental simulation or imagining makes events seem real. They feel so vivid because they operate within the constraints of reality. The content of future simulations usually consists of details from the past, making them more plausible.
The future simulation of your upcoming wedding may contain snippets from weddings you attended in the past, movies about weddings, and a lot of conscious and unconscious wedding-related information nestled in your long-term memory. It’s all waiting to serve as a rehearsal for the real deal, to be retrieved and fed into the virtual mental movie you play when you imagine your future nuptials.
Jack Nicklaus, considered one of the greatest golfers of all time, once wrote, “Before every golf shot I go to the movies in my head.” He described how these mental simulations of his next shot were critical to his success.
Mental time travel also occurs when we become immersed in a book, movie or play. Streaming of movies and TV series has increased exponentially during the coronavirus pandemic, according to recent statistics tracking media consumption. Social media, too, is suddenly rife with posts of the top 10 movies to distract us. If we choose an engaging movie, the world beyond the screen is suppressed and we slip into an alternate world.
Facebook memories reminding us of what we were doing on this day X years ago have taken on a whole new value. They provide a boarding pass for a mental voyage. So it recently went for me. The other morning, while getting my 11-year old daughter, Stella, ready for online school, a Facebook memory popped into view. It consisted of photos taken three years ago when my husband, daughter and I traveled through Patagonia, Argentina. We traveled by horseback through the lush mountainside surrounding the village of El Chaltén.
I remembered the thunderous sound of ice cracking off the massive Perito Moreno Glacier and tumbling into the Argentino Lake. This short mental voyage reminded me of our intention to return to this beloved location. I devoted the next few moments to hatching a future post-covid plan to pick up where our last adventure ended. In my mind, our boots outfitted with the crampons used for ice climbing, the three of us carefully take our first step out onto the glacier.
Anna-Lisa Cohen is a professor of psychology and chair of the psychology department at Yeshiva University.