Mechanism of memories of the past in brain
Scientist Nathan Brown moves a 3D model of a HSP90 protein on a screen at the Institute of Cancer Research in Sutton, July 15, 2013. Reuters

Researchers have built a new theoretical model that suggests that humans are the only ones who can mentally time travel not only to the past but also to the future.

The results of the research, published in the journal Neuroscience and Behavioral Reviews, suggests a new relationship between mental time travel and episodic memory, which is said to be a component of the former.

The research team, comprising Prof Markus Werning, Prof Sen Cheng (both Mercator Research Group "Structure of Memory" at RUB) and Prof Thomas Suddendorf (University of Queensland), assumes that mental time travel is composed of different components.

The first of these components relates to memory traces (fairly accurate representations of personally experienced episodes). The second is the ability to construct mental scenarios (dynamic representations of past or expected situations).

The researchers, who based their conclusions on a comparison of their model with published experimental studies, found that though some animals appeared to possess episodic memory, there was no evidence that they were able to construct, reflect and compare different future scenarios. The latter seemed to be a capacity exclusive to human beings, the researchers found.

Cheng cited the example of the ability of squirrels to cache food in autumn for the winter. This, he said, can be interpreted not as an anticipatory activity but rather as innate behaviour. "The squirrel would hoard food even if it had been fed in the winter all its life," said Cheng.

Another recent research found that episodic memory (detailed recollection of past experiences) is associated with distinct connectivity patterns that may be inherent to the individual. The research, conducted by a team from the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health, was recently published online in the journal Cortex.

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