Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Reality of the Past versus the Ideality of the Future: Emotional Valence and Functional Differences between Past and Future Mental Time Travel

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Reality of the Past versus the Ideality of the Future: Emotional Valence and Functional Differences between Past and Future Mental Time Travel

Article excerpt

Published online: 3 October 2012

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2012

Abstract Mental time travel (MTT) is the ability to mentally project oneself backward or forward in time in order to remember an event from one's personal past or to imagine a possible event in one's personal future. Past and futureMTTshare many similarities, and there is evidence to suggest that the two temporal directions rely on a shared neural network and similar cognitive structures. At the same time, one major difference between past and future MTT is that future as compared to past events generally are more emotionally positive and idyllic, suggesting that the two types of event representations may also serve different functions for emotion, self, and behavioral regulation. Here, we asked 158 participants to remember one positive and one negative event from their personal past as well as to imagine one positive and one negative event from their potential personal future and to rate the events on phenomenological characteristics. We replicated previous work regarding similarities between past and future MTT. We also found that positive events were more phenomenologically vivid than negative events. However, across most variables, we consistently found an increased effect of emotional valence for future as compared to past MTT, showing that the differences between positive and negative events were larger for future than for past events. Our findings support the idea that future MTT is biased by uncorrected positive illusions, whereas past MTT is constrained by the reality of things that have actually happened.

Keywords Autobiographical memory * Mental time travel * Emotional valence

Mental time travel (MTT) is the ability to mentally project oneself backward or forward in time in order to remember an event from one's personal past or to imagine an event from one's potential personal future (e.g., Tulving, 2002). In the literature, future MTT is often referred to as episodic future thinking (e.g., Atance & O'Neill, 2001; Szpunar, 2010) or constructive simulation (e.g., Schacter & Addis, 2007; Taylor & Schneider, 1989), whereas past MTT variably is referred to as episodic or autobiographical memory (e.g., Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000; Rubin, 2006; Tulving, 1983). As is the case for memories, episodic future thinking can involve both emotionally positive and negative experiences (e.g., imagining one's wedding vs. imagining the death of a loved one), as well as mundane or important experiences (e.g., imagining tomorrow's grocery shopping vs. imagining having your first child). Furthermore, both types of events can be near or far in temporal distance. Both processes involve emotional, sensory, and spatial (p)reliving, as well as the experience of the self being present in the mental projection (e.g., Berntsen & Bohn, 2010; D'Argembeau & Van der Linden, 2004).

Research on past and future MTT has demonstrated striking similarities between remembering past events and imagining future events in a broad range of research areas (e.g., Addis, Wong, & Schacter, 2007; D'Argembeau & Mathy, 2011; Schacter & Addis, 2007). However, researchers have also pointed out one of two major differences (discussed below) between past and future episodic thinking-namely, that imagined future events aremore emotionally positive and idyllic than their past counterparts (e.g., Berntsen & Bohn, 2010; Berntsen & Jacobsen, 2008; D'Argembeau & Van der Linden, 2004; Newby-Clark & Ross, 2003; Ross & Newby-Clark, 1998). It has been suggested that this marked positivity bias for future events may reflect important functional differences between the two temporal directions (e.g., Berntsen & Bohn, 2010).

In the present article, we will make the case that imagined future events are typically characterized by uncorrected positive illusions (Cacioppo & Gardner, 1999), which may encourage the individual to explore the environment and seek out new goals, whereas remembered past events are generally constrained by the reality imposed by events that already have happened. …

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