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Only Human Brain Is Capable Of Mental Time Travel: Study

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Researchers from the Ruhr-Universität Bochum (RUB) and University of Queensland (UQ) found a link between episodic memory and mental time travel. The research team comprised of Professor Sen Cheng and Professor Markus Werning from RUB's Mercator Research Group "Structure of Memory" and Professor Thomas Suddendorf from UQ.

The team created a theoretical model that shows how human beings are the only species capable of traveling through time mentally. The researchers hypothesized that this mental time travel is made up of various components and includes both past and future events.

The research was published in the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews.

Two Components Of Mental Time Travel

The scientific community has long wondered if human beings are the only species capable of remembering past events and traveling through time mentally. The three researchers found animals that share some abilities, but only to a certain extent based on a new theoretical model made of two distinct components.

The first component is related to memory traces which are relatively accurate depictions of episodes that were experienced firsthand. The second component, seen in human beings, is the ability to compose mental scenarios, which are vivid depictions of expected or past events.

A scenario is created by linking a past event with other information and experiences. When losing a key, for instance, one would mentally go back to the time it was last seen to figure out where to find it.

The team compared their new theoretical model to various models in published studies. They found that while some animals may seem to have episodic memory abilities, they discovered no evidence of the second component. Animals are unable to create, compare, and reflect various future scenarios so they concluded that this ability is limited to human beings.

One best example would be the squirrel's ability to winter sustenance in autumn. Cheng explained that the squirrel's behavior was not an "anticipatory activity." The action resulted from the squirrel's innate behavior.

"The squirrel would hoard food even if it had been fed in the winter all its life," said Cheng.

Photo: Jacob Bøtter | Flickr

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