Post by Ruthanna Gordon
Perhaps the most notable thing about time is that we notice it. This may seem unimpressive at first, but think about it. We don’t notice most of what happens in the universe. Infrared, ultraviolet, and microwave radiation pass our eyes without a blip. Magnetic fields pulse and fade. But time is something that we perceive—without even having a sense set aside for it.
The most studied area in the psychology of time is our perception of the past. Human memory is complex and surprisingly fickle. If you’ve ever gotten into a He Said/She Said argument, you know that people recall events in ways that make them look good, even at the cost of accuracy. And when we’re very stressed—for example, just after witnessing a crime—we unthinkingly fill in memory gaps with whatever other people claim to have seen.
Even with their flaws, our memories do a lot for us. Memory helps you keep track of who and what you are. It helps you keep track of other people’s personalities, so that you learn who and when to trust. It lets you improve your handling of a situation the second, third, and three thousandth time you encounter it.
The psychology of the future seems like it should be a fuzzier thing. When we plan and daydream, we imagine many different possibilities. We consider different ways of asking for a raise tomorrow, or fantasize about remote chances years away. But it turns out that memory and planning are, in many ways, really the same thing.
Over the last several years, psychologists have begun to examine future thinking in detail. What they’ve learned is that it draws heavily on memory. Want to know what the future will be like? In many cases, it will be like the past. When it’s not, past patterns may still be useful in guessing at the differences. Planning your next party lights up the same brain areas that spark when you reminisce about your last one. These abilities, more and more frequently, are grouped together as “mental time travel.”
In the mind, the past and the future intertwine more closely than anyone guessed. People with amnesia often have trouble creating a detailed image of the future. People who give vague answers (“I always do badly at math”) when asked about specific events (“Tell me about the last time you took a test”) are prone to equally vague fears about the future, and to depression. And some skills—a vivid imagination, social modeling, and mental mapping—extend our reach beyond the present and allow it to flourish in both directions.