Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Mental Time Travel

We are posting this on behalf of Dorothea Debus, Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of York.
Dorothea Debus
Hello! My name is Dorothea Debus, and my research is on topics in the Philosophy of Mind and Psychology. I've recently written a paper on a new paradigm in experimental psychology, the paradigm of 'mental time travel', and Lisa has asked me to write a piece for this blog on my work on that topic.

'Mental Time Travel' is a comparatively new research paradigm in experimental psychology and the neurosciences. Relevant empirical work starts from the observation that there might be important similarities between, and maybe even a shared neuro­physiologial basis for, our engaging with the past in memory, and our engaging with the future in foresight. Both ways of relating to times other than the present are then, in an attempt to emphasize relevant similarities, referred to as cases of 'mental time travel'.

In my own work on the topic, I focus on two specific forms of 'mental time travel', namely recollective memories of past events and sensory imaginations of future events, that is, on those cases of memory and imagination which have experiential characteristics. We can, and do, recollectively remember past events, and we can, and do, sensorily imagine future events. For example, you might recollectively remember what you did last Sunday, and you might sensorily imagine what you are going to do next Sunday. Recollective memories of past events and sensory imaginations of future events are particularly vivid forms of 'mental time travel', and are therefore bound to play an especially important role in our engagement with our past and our future.
Recollective memories and sensory imaginations are, considered in isolation and from the subject's own point of view, rather similar, and recent empirical research also suggests that we might eventually be able to determine a unified neurophysiological basis for both forms of 'mental time travel'. One might therefore be inclined to hold that R-memories of past events and S-imaginations of future events are ultimately experiences of the same kind. 
However, I think this suggestion should be resisted. Indeed, quite on the contrary, one can show that the nature of the two kinds of 'mental time travel' under consideration does differ in important respects. More precisely, I argue that (i) when a subject R-remembers a past event, the subject is experientially aware of a past particular event. By contrast, (ii) when a subject S-imagines a future event, the subject could not possibly be experientially aware of a future particular event; rather, the subject's experience represents a general type of event which is projected into the future. But then, (iii) being experientially aware of a particular event and having an experience which represents a general type of event are two different kinds of mental states. Thus, while it is bound to be fruitful and illuminating to explore the similarities between R-memories of past events and S-imaginations of future events, just as the 'mental time travel' paradigm suggests that we do, we can conclude that R-memories of past events and S-imaginations of future events are ultimately mental occurrences of two different kinds.

Of course, in order to be fully convincing the present argument would need to be developed in greater detail. You can find out about how this might be done by reading on here!

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