Time Travel Explained

You’re sat in the passenger seat of your girlfriend’s car whilst stationary at a set of traffic lights, only to see the child in the adjacent car pulling faces at you. As your car begins to move you look back at the child and stick your tongue out whilst pulling the most hideous face imaginable, feeling quite smug at the childish revenge you just inflicted. In a moment of panic, you suddenly realise that it is in fact the adjacent car that is moving and you helplessly stare in horror as the child sticks his fingers up his nose and puffs out his cheeks as his car speeds away; a victory face pull. You curse your eyes for deceiving you and enabling a seven year old child to dent your precious male ego, whilst simultaneously wondering how it was possible to genuinely feel like you were moving. Ponder no further because here lies the answer and it is all centred around visual illusions and the brain connections which give rise to them.

“Did you know that mental time travel is now possible and has become an area of exciting psychological research?”

How many of you have watched the likes of Doctor Who or Life On Mars and wished you could manoeuvre your way around the Universe, having mastered the art of time travel? Did you know that time travel is now possible and has become an area of exciting psychological research? Well, not actual time travel but more mental time travel. When you look at your girlfriend and experience butterflies at the thought of your first kiss, it is mental time travel that allows you to revisit that romantic moment where you locked lips in the rain having shared a portion of chips. Or when sat at work in a freezing cold office, watching the seconds tick by on your watch and anticipating a lovely warm cup of tea on your arrival home; mental time travel allows you to look forward, as well as backwards. It is this phenomenon that explains why you genuinely feel lust when you imagine Cheryl Cole to be your girlfriend, having cooked you up a delicious meal and watched you eat it whilst draped across your kitchen table in nothing more than her lacey black underwear.

“Links have previously been established between mental time travel and movement…”

Four Psychologists, Miles, Karpinska, Lumsden and Macrae (2010), set out to investigate what it was that enabled this shift in time and devised an experiment which hypothesised that mental time travel is represented in our brain’s sensory-motor systems I.e. the area of our brain which enables muscles to move. Links have previously been established between mental time travel and movement, with thinking about the past leading to a more backwards physical movement and thinking about the future leading to a more forward physical movement. However Macrae and colleagues set out to see if the reverse was true – did movement, or at least apparent movement, influence the direction of mental time travel? With size and logistical limitations, a computer simulation was implemented to create the illusion of movement. This simulation consisted of a black screen with small white dots scattered across it, fairly similar to what you would see if you looked up at the sky on a starry night. The programme was animated in one of two directions; the dots moved from the centre outwards and so  feeling of forward movement, or the dots moved from the outside to the centre which induced the feeling of backwards motion. Participants were required to carry out a simple and boring task, enabling their minds to daydream and were asked to report the details of these following the completion of the mundane task.

“I’m going to allow you to put yourself into the shoes of Scientists…”

I’m going to allow you to put yourself into the shoes of Scientists who have a multitude of qualifications and PhD’s here; what would you expect to find, if mental time travel is associated with movement? You would hope that if previous research has been reliable and drawn accurate conclusions, the forward dot animation led to mental time travel in the future, whereas the backwards dot animation caused participants to revisit past memories. Well done, Freud’s of the world; you were correct in your hypothesis. There were 19% more instances of mental time travel into the future than the past with the forward movement condition and 23% more mental time travel into the past than the future amongst the backwards movement condition. Pretty cool, huh?

“The notion of researching mental time travel is super geeky…”

Whilst there are inevitable issues with the study, as with any study, the notion of researching mental time travel is super geeky. Not geeky in a nerdy way though; geeky in a “Leonard from the Big Bang Theory” way, which if you live next door to a really hot blonde girl named “Penny” will definitely aid you in your pursuit of romance. The study is quite a cool one, which you can put into practice within your daily life. Do you have a difficult decision to make; Which house to buy? Which job to take? Perhaps sitting facing forwards when making a train journey will help with the abundance of uncertainty you are facing; facilitating future-orientated day dreams and aiding you in accepting the right job offer or putting a deposit down on your dream house. Or perhaps you are in a really lovely period of your relationship and you want to relive every moment you’ve had with your girlfriend, obviously never admitting this to the boys as you will be mocked for life. Opt for a backwards facing seat and find yourself starry-eyed and loved up, trying to conjure up sonnets even Shakespeare would be proud of to convey your mushy emotions to the world. On second thoughts, probably just to that little notebook you keep secretly stashed away so you can express your inner poet without being ridiculed by everybody who reads it.

By: Laura Hindley – @LauraHindley2

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