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The evolution of foresight: What is mental time travel, and is it unique to humans?

Thomas Suddendorfa1 and Michael C. Corballisa2

a1 School of Psychology, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Queensland 4072, Australia

a2 Department of Psychology, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland 1142, New Zealand


In a dynamic world, mechanisms allowing prediction of future situations can provide a selective advantage. We suggest that memory systems differ in the degree of flexibility they offer for anticipatory behavior and put forward a corresponding taxonomy of prospection. The adaptive advantage of any memory system can only lie in what it contributes for future survival. The most flexible is episodic memory, which we suggest is part of a more general faculty of mental time travel that allows us not only to go back in time, but also to foresee, plan, and shape virtually any specific future event. We review comparative studies and find that, in spite of increased research in the area, there is as yet no convincing evidence for mental time travel in nonhuman animals. We submit that mental time travel is not an encapsulated cognitive system, but instead comprises several subsidiary mechanisms. A theater metaphor serves as an analogy for the kind of mechanisms required for effective mental time travel. We propose that future research should consider these mechanisms in addition to direct evidence of future-directed action. We maintain that the emergence of mental time travel in evolution was a crucial step towards our current success.

Thomas Suddendorf was born and raised in Germany but has spent most of his adult life further South. He completed both his Masters (1994) and Ph.D. (1998) theses under supervision of Michael Corballis in New Zealand, before taking up a position at The University of Queensland, Australia, where he is currently Associate Professor of Psychology. He has published extensively on the evolution of mental time travel and the representational capacities of apes and young children. His work has attracted several recognitions, including most recently the Early Career Award of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and the Frank A. Beach Award of the American Psychological Association Division 6 (Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology).

Michael Corballis received his Ph.D. from McGill University in 1965, and served on the faculty there until 1977, when he took up his present position as Professor of Psychology at the University of Auckland. He has published on many aspects of cognitive neuroscience, including cerebral asymmetry, memory, imagery, and the evolution of language. He is a Fellow of the AAAS, the American Psychological Association, the American Psychological Society, and the Royal Society of New Zealand, and in 2002 was appointed Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit (ONZM) for services to psychological science. He was recently elected President of the International Neuropsychological Society.