April 03, 2007

Difference Between the Future & the Past?

New Scientist reports on several studies which suggest that there may not be such a difference between the future and the past, at least in our brains. From the free abstract on the New Scientist web site, author Jessica Marshall writes:

"IMAGINE your next vacation. You are relaxing on a beach, waves lapping at the shore, a cool breeze wafting through the trees and the sun caressing your skin. Fill in the details. What else do you see? Now, remember yesterday's commute. Again, a picture emerges. You are on the train or in your car, or maybe just wandering from your kitchen to your desk. Can you remember what you were wearing? Perhaps you have forgotten that part already.

"Without breaking sweat, you can hurtle yourself backwards or forwards in time in your mind's eye - what is known as 'mental time travel'. One of these visions really happened and the other was fantasy, yet the act of conjuring them up probably felt very similar. It's as if, embedded somewhere in your brain, there is a time machine that can take you forwards and backwards at will."

Turns out that fMRI's show very little difference in the brain when people are thinking of something in the past or imagining something in the future.

From an evolutionary perspective, this might make sense, according to University of Toronto neuroscientist Endel Tulving: "It is hard to imagine how personal recall alone might be evolutionarily useful, but if remembering how cold and hungry you were last winter helps you realise the benefits of putting food away for the next one, or convinces you to plant a few of your grains instead of eating them all, you stand a much better chance of surviving than someone who cannot project themselves backwards and forward in time. 'I cannot imagine how civilisation could emerge from brains that cannot imagine the future,' Tulving says."

Fascinating in its own right, but this has implications for reference librarians faced with patrons who mis-remember dates, names, and other essential components of their reference question. Marshall paraphrases Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter: "False memories are not memory deficits at all but by-products of a normal, healthy memory." Not only are our patrons not intentionally misleading us, perhaps their mis-remembering is actually normal -- and even evolutionarily based.

At a minimum, it might make me more sympathetic as I try to help people who swear the article was published in 1990 or 1991 -- when it turns out to have been published in 1988.

Future recall: your mind can slip through time - being-human by Jessica Marshall in the March 24 2007 issue of New Scientist. Available through LexisNexis in your library, or for a fee on their web site.

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