Abstract

The ability to decouple from the present environment and explore other times is a central feature of the human mind. Research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience has shown that the personal past and future is represented at multiple timescales and levels of resolution, from broad lifetime periods that span years to short-time slices of experience that span seconds. Here, I review this evidence and propose a theoretical framework for understanding mental time travel as the capacity to flexibly navigate hierarchical layers of autobiographical representations. On this view, past and future thoughts rely on two main systems—event simulation and autobiographical knowledge—that allow us to represent experiential contents that are decoupled from sensory input and to place these on a personal timeline scaffolded from conceptual knowledge of the content and structure of our life. The neural basis of this cognitive architecture is discussed, emphasizing the possible role of the medial pFC in integrating layers of autobiographical representations in the service of mental time travel.

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