Mental time travel: An exclusively human capacity

December 22, 2015

Are humans the only ones who are able to remember events that they had experienced and mentally time travel not only into the past but also the future? Or do animals have the same capacity? To a certain extend, according to three researchers who are contributing a new theoretical model to this long-standing discussion. They published their results in the journal Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews.

Episodic memory is a component of mental time travel

The model developed by the three researchers Prof Markus Werning, Prof Sen Cheng (both Mercator Research Group "Structure of Memory" at RUB) and Prof Thomas Suddendorf (University of Queensland) differs from other approaches with regard to one major aspect: it suggests a new relationship between mental time travel and episodic memory. The research team assumes that mental time travel is composed of different components. "Component one are memory traces from episodic memory. That means: fairly accurate representations of personally experienced episodes, where each trace represents a particular experience, i.e. is very specific," explains Prof Sen Cheng. Component two is the ability to construct mental scenarios; by this, the researchers mean dynamic representations of past or expected situations that are not isolated but rather can be embedded into larger contexts and be reflected. If, for example, someone misplaces their key, they mentally travel back to places and situations where they still had the key. By associating the past situation with other experiences and information, a scenario is created. The question if and, if so, how the construction of mental scenarios is linked to a specific "autonoetic" form of consciousness is particularly interesting from the philosophical point of view. The authors discuss several options with an open outcome.

No definitive evidence for foresightful behaviour in animals found

In order to answer the question if animals are capable of mental time travel, the researchers relied on published experimental studies and matched the results with their model. Conclusion: "Some animals indeed appear to possess episodic memory. There is, however, no evidence that they are able to construct, reflect and compare different future scenarios like humans are. We therefore don't believe that animals are capable of mental time travel," says Prof Sen Cheng. For example, the ability of squirrels to cache food in autumn for the winter can be interpreted not as an anticipatory activity, but rather as innate behaviour. "The squirrel would hoard food even if it had been fed in the winter all its life," says Cheng.

Research across disciplinary boundaries

As professors in the interdisciplinary Mercator Research Group "Structure of Memory" at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Prof Sen Cheng and Prof Markus Werning have successfully looked beyond the boundaries of their respective disciplines when conducting memory research. For their current study, they were joined by Prof Thomas Suddendorf, one of the pioneers in the research into mental processes in animals. The three researchers are old acquaintances. Thomas Suddendorf had spent two months as Senior Scientist at the Mercator Research Group and was one of the speakers at the ECE Summer School "Memory and Mind".
About the Mercator Research Groups

In a joined project with the Mercator Foundation, Ruhr-Universität Bochum has established two Mercator Research Groups (Mercator Research Groups; MRG 1 and 2). In each group, three to four junior professors form an independent research team. Each group is supported by an experienced researcher (Senior Scientists). The MRGs are managed solely by the professors.


Cheng S, Werning M and Suddendorf T (2016). Dissociating Memory Traces and Scenario Construction in Mental Time Travel. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev., 60:82-89. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2015.11.011

Further information

Prof Dr Sen Cheng, Mercator Research Group "Structure of Memory", Faculty of Psychology, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany, phone: +49/234/32-27136

Prof Dr Markus Werning, Institute of Philosophy II at RUB and Mercator Research Group "Structure of Memory", phone: 0234/32-24734

Ruhr-University Bochum

Related Memory Articles from Brightsurf:

Memory of the Venus flytrap
In a study to be published in Nature Plants, a graduate student Mr.

Memory protein
When UC Santa Barbara materials scientist Omar Saleh and graduate student Ian Morgan sought to understand the mechanical behaviors of disordered proteins in the lab, they expected that after being stretched, one particular model protein would snap back instantaneously, like a rubber band.

Previously claimed memory boosting font 'Sans Forgetica' does not actually boost memory
It was previously claimed that the font Sans Forgetica could enhance people's memory for information, however researchers from the University of Warwick and the University of Waikato, New Zealand, have found after carrying out numerous experiments that the font does not enhance memory.

Memory boost with just one look
HRL Laboratories, LLC, researchers have published results showing that targeted transcranial electrical stimulation during slow-wave sleep can improve metamemories of specific episodes by 20% after only one viewing of the episode, compared to controls.

VR is not suited to visual memory?!
Toyohashi university of technology researcher and a research team at Tokyo Denki University have found that virtual reality (VR) may interfere with visual memory.

The genetic signature of memory
Despite their importance in memory, the human cortex and subcortex display a distinct collection of 'gene signatures.' The work recently published in eNeuro increases our understanding of how the brain creates memories and identifies potential genes for further investigation.

How long does memory last? For shape memory alloys, the longer the better
Scientists captured live action details of the phase transitions of shape memory alloys, giving them a better idea how to improve their properties for applications.

A NEAT discovery about memory
UAB researchers say over expression of NEAT1, an noncoding RNA, appears to diminish the ability of older brains to form memories.

Molecular memory can be used to increase the memory capacity of hard disks
Researchers at the University of Jyväskylä have taken part in an international British-Finnish-Chinese collaboration where the first molecule capable of remembering the direction of a magnetic above liquid nitrogen temperatures has been prepared and characterized.

Memory transferred between snails
Memories can be transferred between organisms by extracting ribonucleic acid (RNA) from a trained animal and injecting it into an untrained animal, as demonstrated in a study of sea snails published in eNeuro.

Read More: Memory News and Memory Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to