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Mental Time Travel? A Neurocognitive Model of Event Simulation


Mental time travel (MTT) is defined as projecting the self into the past and the future. Despite growing evidence of the similarities of remembering past and imagining future events, dominant theories conceive of these as distinct capacities. I propose that memory and imagination are fundamentally the same process – constructive episodic simulation – and demonstrate that the ‘simulation system’ meets the three criteria of a neurocognitive system. Irrespective of whether one is remembering or imagining, the simulation system: (1) acts on the same information, drawing on elements of experience ranging from fine-grained perceptual details to coarser-grained conceptual information and schemas about the world; (2) is governed by the same rules of operation, including associative processes that facilitate construction of a schematic scaffold, the event representation itself, and the dynamic interplay between the two (cf. predictive coding); and (3) is subserved by the same brain system. I also propose that by forming associations between schemas, the simulation system constructs multi-dimensional cognitive spaces, within which any given simulation is mapped by the hippocampus. Finally, I suggest that simulation is a general capacity that underpins other domains of cognition, such as the perception of ongoing experience. This proposal has some important implications for the construct of ‘MTT’, suggesting that ‘time’ and ‘travel’ may not be defining, or even essential, features. Rather, it is the ‘mental’ rendering of experience that is the most fundamental function of this domain-general simulation system enabling humans to re-experience the past, pre-experience the future, and also comprehend the complexities of the present.

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I gratefully acknowledge the editors of this Special Issue who also organized the Otago Mental Time Travel Symposium that served as inspiration for the paper, and the comments of anonymous reviewers. This work was supported thanks to funding from the Canada 150 Research Chairs Program.

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Correspondence to Donna Rose Addis.

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Addis, D.R. Mental Time Travel? A Neurocognitive Model of Event Simulation. Rev.Phil.Psych. 11, 233–259 (2020).

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  • Autobiographical memory
  • Default mode network
  • Episodic memory
  • Future thinking
  • Hippocampus
  • Imagination
  • Medial prefrontal cortex
  • Prospection
  • Schema
  • Semantic memory