We’re often told to “be here now.” Yet the mind is rarely tethered in place. We take mental trips to our past, revisiting what happened yesterday or when we were children, or we project into an imagined future: tomorrow’s dinner date, the trajectory of our career at age 50.
Rather than a diversion from the norm of mindful presence, this tendency to internally visit other time lines, called “mental time travel,” is common; young adults, for example, think about their future an average of 59 times a day. Psychologists have suggested that this ability to time travel from the confines of our own heads is a fundamental aspect of what it means to be human.
The past and future are not locations that remain the same regardless of who is visiting and when. The way we envision our past or future is ever-changing, and the construction of these scenarios has an impact on what we do and how we think in the present. Until recently, the study of mental time travel largely focused on individuals and their personal histories. But this doesn’t reflect the social nature of our lives. Identities are comprised of groups that nestle into one another. We are part of our families and friend circles, occupational networks, countries and nations, and ethnic groups. The study of mental time travel is starting to reflect this: When we travel through time, we don’t always go alone.
Research on “collective mental time travel” shows that the way we imagine the collective future or past also impacts the present. It can sway attitudes toward policy decisions and laws, as well as how aligned people feel with their country or existing systems. It can affect a person’s willingness to engage in prosocial behaviors, like voting, donating, or activism. Because of this, collective mental time travel is more than just a neat cognitive trick—it provides an opportunity to be more intentional about how we represent the collective past and future.
In the 1980s, psychologist Endel Tulving proposed that humans have the ability to relive their past and pre-experience the future, theorizing that the same memory mechanisms were used for both. This was supported by case studies with amnesiacs: One man, “K.C.,” had brain lesions that affected his ability to retain personal memories, like a visit he’d taken to a family lake house. This patient couldn’t imagine going there in the future, despite knowing that his family owned the house.
More recent brain imaging has supported Tulving’s theory by showing that similar networks are activated when remembering the personal past and personal future, said Karl Szpunar, an associate professor of psychology and director of the Memory Lab at Toronto Metropolitan University. Based on this evidence, some scientists think that we imagine the future by recombining past experiences—this is called the “constructed episodic simulation hypothesis.”
For the collective past and future, the story may be more complex. Is our collective future simply made up of fragments of the collective past? Intriguingly, when people with damage to their hippocampus, a brain region involved in personal memory, are asked about collective future events, like “What environmental concerns will the world face over the coming decade?” they are able to come up with answers. Even though their ability to mentally time travel into their personal futures was compromised, the ability to imagine events affecting a group’s future was intact. More work on this is needed, but as Spzunar and his colleague wrote, “The capacity to engage in collective future thought appears to rely on cognitive processes distinct from those involved in individual or personal future thinking.”
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The collective past likely has an influence on the collective future, but only to a point, says Meymune Topcu, a visiting scholar at The New School. She’s coauthor of a recent review chapter on collective mental time travel, in which she examined numerous cases of people collectively “visiting” the past and future and looked at whether they felt positively or negatively about their mental representations and how specific the content of their time travel was.
She found that past events can influence what people imagine to happen in the collective future, but there isn’t necessarily a complete overlap. Imagined collective futures can also be less specific than memories of the collective past, Topcu said. Additionally, when we think about our own futures, we tend to have an optimism bias, but when people are asked to think about the future of their countries, they often focus more on potentially worrisome, rather than potentially exciting, possibilities. (These findings have not been found to be culturally universal: Some newer research with Chinese participants has shown that such positive and negative biases are not present in those study groups.)
On an individual level, thinking about the future is correlated with specific actions or attitudes. Studies from Hal Hershfield, a psychologist at UCLA who studies the effects of time perception, and his colleagues, have found that people who relate more to their future selves make more future-oriented decisions, like saving money for later, and have higher levels of well-being over a 10-year period. Hershfield has also asked people about their conception of how long the present is. The longer they thought “right now” lasted, the fewer emotions they felt about the future. People who said that the present ended sooner were more likely to make future-oriented decisions. Having a future time perspective can also predict pro-environmental attitudes, like favoring and participating in more sustainable behaviors.
If how you think about the future or present can be a guiding influence, it’s a short leap to envisioning how collective pasts and futures might be manipulated for various means. Jeremy Yamashiro, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Santa Cruz, said that rather than creating hard and fast rules for the best way to represent the past and the future, he’s become more sensitive to the ways people use representations in strategic ways. “It’s much more, ‘How are people using that in order to convince you of what they’re trying to convince you of?’” He said. The collective future probably isn’t based only on the building blocks of the past, but also cultural narratives, Yamashiro said.
Those narratives can have immediate and practical policy ramifications. In 2014, social and cultural psychologist Contance de Saint-Laurent analyzed the parliamentary debates on immigration in France and found two dominant narratives for how left-wing and right-wing politicians thought about the country’s past.
The left saw the past as “a constant struggle between humanists and their adversaries,” while the right saw the central tenet of French history as the “social contract that enables co-existence in society.” Because of the way these groups viewed the past, de Saint-Laurent wrote, people on the left were more willing to see the future as an opportunity to address colonial crimes, while the others would only accept immigrants who adhered to the social contract of the country.
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A person’s current reality also affects how much they focus on the future. Johanna Peetz, a social psychologist at Carleton University, has found a link between future thinking and the economic index of countries and their general quality of life. If a country’s economic index was stable or decreasing, and quality of life was declining, people did not want to look toward the future.
We could, however, think of some manipulations being wielded for good. Topcu thinks that collective future thinking could play a role in addressing intergroup conflicts. In one study, people who lived in the European Union were given different descriptions of the EU. One was an excerpt that mentioned the common heritage of European societies, the other was a narrative focusing on how the EU was a project for the future. Then the people played a game in which they had to choose to cooperate with other participants. When people saw the EU as a future-oriented project, rather than one based in the past, they were more likely to play nice.
“I’m just speculating, but if we ask people to imagine a future in a different way, or simply imagining a future where there’s more peace and cooperation between these two groups, it could have an effect on whether they would be more willing to change the present situation,” Topcu said.
This approach could be applied at a more global scale. In 2018, researchers asked people to write about their vision of the best possible overall society. People who imagined utopia-like futures ended up being less satisfied with the status quo and were less likely to justify current systems. People asked to engage in utopian thinking also reported being more willing to participate in individual and collective action to attain that future.
But the type of utopia mattered. In a follow-up study, participants were asked to imagine either a “green utopia” composed of an “ecologically friendly society that champions sustainable efficiency” or a “sci-fi utopia,” where technological advancement and material efficiency dominated. Both utopias were seen as positive, but those who imagined the green utopia were more willing to participate in social change or report that they would donate to a nonprofit. The authors speculated that it had to do with agency—those who invested in a sci-fi future envisioned technology solving every problem and may have felt less able to bring about that positive future.
This suggests that proposing a future on Mars, for example, might unintentionally lead to less action in the present than collectively imagining a different kind of future would. “When we think about techno-fixes, it’s couched in a narrative of progress,” said Piotr Szpunar, a professor in the Communication Department at the University at Albany: “a narrative that technology continuously gets better, and at the same time, that society continuously gets better, or more equitable.” This can happen within nations too, as with the story of American exceptionalism. “There’s this idea that regardless of what happens, we’re still progressing,” he said. William Hirst, professor and cochair of psychology at The New School for Social Research, described the often rigid relationship between memory and history as “mnemonic inertia,” when certain stories become sticky and have outsized weight in terms of how we think about the present and future.
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The future can also modify how we view the past, a concept that psychologist Ignacio Brescó de Luna called “prolepsis,” or when “imagined futures are brought into the present by means of particular ways of reconstructing the past.” In 2018, transdisciplinary scholar Séamus A. Power interviewed people engaged in water protests in Ireland. He argued that a driving reason for their collective action was imagining a dystopic future in which water was privatized, an imagined future based on remembering past cases of privatization in Ireland.
“There is a continuous looping from the past to the future and back again, always converging on the focal point of the present,” Power wrote. There’s room for flexibility—the most important lesson currently from collective mental time travel might be how dynamic an interaction there is between our notions of future, present, and past.
No matter how we use it, collective mental time travel ultimately challenges the objective reality of our past and present. The English philosopher C.D. Broad proposed the “growing block theory of time,” which says that only the past and present are real, and the future is not. As the future becomes the present, it is added on to the “growing block of reality.” Collective mental time travel reminds us that all remembrances of the past are reconstructions to some extent, and our present is continuously being informed by the way we imagine the future and conceive of the past.
“When you can change the narrative of the past, it’s going to change the way you conceive of the future too,” Hirst said. We won’t ever be able to escape this relationship, but we can seek a better understanding of how our perceptions are influenced by mental time travel, and how the collective past and future can be tools for building a better present.