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Mental Time Travel: Successfully Navigating our Pasts and Futures

Monday, October 3, 2011
12:00 AM
East Hall: Rom 3447

Unlike other species, human beings have the unique ability to mentally simulate experiences outside of the immediate environment. We like chocolate cake not by tasting it at every meal but because we remember liking it before. And we dislike cockroach pie not by giving it a try but by imagining how terribly it must taste.
Our brains have evolved as experience simulators. We constantly reconstruct past moments and anticipate future outcomes in order to effectively navigate the social world. This ability is known as “mental time travel” and in recent years has been studied extensively within social psychology and cognitive sciences.
One of the most consistent findings suggests that, despite the remarkable human capacity for non-immediate thought, mental time travel faces a great deal of turbulence: perceptions of the past and future readily change according to our passing emotions, motivations, goals, and desires. For example, incidental moods assimilate with episodic memory (e.g., today’s bad mood causes us to think we had a more negative past) and visceral states strongly influence future predictions (e.g., feeling hungry causes us to over-purchase our weekly groceries). Thus, although mental simulations can help us make better choices, they can also lead us astray.
This symposium brings together leading researchers across psychology to address how can we successfully navigate our pasts and futures. How can we accurately understand and learn from our past experiences? How can we appropriately think about and plan for our future selves? What is the overall function of mental time travel in guiding everyday decisions, feelings, and behaviors?