Remembering the Past is Like Imagining the Future

Sean Carroll in Cosmic Variance:

Because of the growth of entropy, we have a very different epistemic access to the past than to the future. In retrodicting the past, we have recourse to “memories” and “records,” which we can take as mostly-reliable indicators of events that actually happened. But when it comes to the future, the best we can do is extrapolate, without nearly the reliability that we have in reconstructing the past…


As it turns out, the way that the human brain goes about the task of “remembering the past” is actually very similar to how it goes about “imagining the future.” Deep down, these are activities with very different functions and outcomes — predicting the future is a lot less reliable, for one thing. But in both cases, the brain goes through more or less the same routine.

Doing_double_duty That’s what Daniel Schacter at Harvard and his friends have discovered, by doing functional MRI studies of brains subjected to different kinds of cues. (Science News report, Nature review article, Charlie Rose interview.) Subjects are inserted gently into the giant magnetic field, then asked to either conjure up a memory or imagine a future scenario about some particular cue-word. What you see is that the same sites in the brain light up in both cases. The brain on the left in this image is remembering the past — on the right, it’s concocting an imaginary scenario about the future.

More here.