How Our Ability to Remember the Past Lets Us See the Future
If we could tell you where you were going and how you would get there, would you be interested? Not just for the next five minutes while you read this article, but beyond that….into those eagerly anticipated, potentially glorious futures that none of us has yet met.
Human beings have a fundamental interest in navigation. We use it externally to explore the environment, but it operates internally too. It is as if we have a hidden compass that we use to orient ourselves in space and time. Through it we project ourselves into the past or the future—or even into other people’s lives. We might call this internal compass “Imagination.” With it, we can describe a landscape that contains past, present and future, all of which can be accessed at the same moment. Were 4D glasses available, this might be the world they would capture. Using this way of seeing, we develop, or allow ourselves to find, some of the most interesting places possible. By virtue of our imagination, we can create new scenarios and anticipate potential realities.
We can use the “knowing system” to describe facts, for instance that London is the capital of England. But we can also use our powers of imagination to subjectively re-experience what it was like the last time we were there, and to pre-experience what may happen on our next visit; when we do so we are relying on our “imagination system” with its rich array of changing viewpoints.
The capital of England is a label for London. Once attached to a thing, a label becomes an unquestioned identifier, and thereafter its provenance is never queried. James Bond is a wonderful label. It’s one fictitious man, who remains himself despite being acted by numerous real men. Some labels, like policeman, are so powerful and prominent that they elicit an automatic reaction before we have had a moment to put them in context.
By contrast, the imagination system opens the door to identity, because we each create our own personalized memories and imaginings—we are both authors and owners of our thoughts. The imagination system allows us to question realities because we can explore different perspectives simultaneously. It allows us to make sense of our individual past experiences and also our collective memories, enabling us to know each other and ourselves. It tells us where we are now and provides the vision to know where we might be going next.
We could argue, in a world where labels are increasingly proliferating, that it is becoming harder to know who we are, or to decipher the clues defining identity, reality, or consciousness. Understanding our identity—who we are and where we are going—is crucial to our individual success and all our futures on the planet. Imagination is the key to consciousness: our own and other peoples’. The creation of our memories and imaginings reveals much about the way we think and about how we express and value our subjective experiences.
The power of imagination is that it allows us to see things from more than one point of view while standing in a single position. In the mind’s eye, we can adopt multiple perspectives, creating and recreating a suite of alternative realities. Each time we use our imagination system to remember a past event, we don’t simply replay the information, we recreate it in an updated form, which results in certain aspects being subtly changed, maybe in light of subsequent experiences or other knowledge we have acquired. In this way, the imagination system alters our memory of the past and questions the integrity of what we thought we believed, revealing how ideas are transformed by time.
This feature is beautifully illustrated by a quote from Wilkins’ latest novel “Moustachio”:
“In the gloom, he had followed the lines of the streets with his thoughts and had eventually found himself at the tango on the river. The dancing was glorious and he had lost himself to moments that opened up for him—the release, as ever, had been joyous; it was as if he was outside of time. The spirit of the experience flashes before him again; he observes it, remotely quantifying the sensations, checking and wondering if his observations still matched his earlier recollection. Even in this short time, he recognised that his sense of recall, his remembrance, had altered in some way, beyond his control. What had he missed or forgotten? What had altered?”
The fully functioning human mind uses both the knowing system and the imagination system to orient and question itself in the past, present, and future, often moving seamlessly backward and forward through time. The case of KC provides narrative evidence of the experience of an otherwise normal person who can’t imagine the past or the future. He suffered debilitating brain trauma in a motorcycle accident, which resulted in severe damage to his medial temporal lobes and almost complete loss of the hippocampus, a part of the brain that is crucial to imagination and remembering.
KC has normal intelligence. He knows lots of facts, including that 007 and James Bond are one and the same person. Yet he cannot remember anything that has happened to him, nor can he imagine the future. The striking thing about KC is that, however hard he tries, he cannot conjure a single event into his conscious awareness. He has no subjective experiences about himself—just timeless, self-less labels. When asked to remember, his mind goes blank, and he feels the same kind of blankness when he tries to imagine the future. He shows a complete personal disconnection from his subjective experiences; it’s as though he wasn’t there when the events actually happened but was merely told the facts afterward.
Are we unique among the animal kingdom in having this ability to project the self through time? Might animal minds also use an imagination system, or do they rely only on the knowing system like KC? Studies on animals give us an opportunity to ask whether other minds might be capable of such feats. If they are, we might be able to explore the processes they use to understand more about ourselves.
Some of the most intriguing evidence comes from studies of birds, particularly crows, whose cognitive abilities have earned them the nickname ‘feathered apes’. These birds save food caches for the future and have long-lasting and highly accurate memories of where the food is hidden. They remember specific past caching events, recalling what they hid where and how long ago. They also remember who was watching when they hid the food, so that once the spies have left the scene, the cacher can re-hide the food in new places, ones that the would-be thieves do not know about. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this behaviour is that it is only those birds who have themselves been thieves in the past that re-hide the food in new places. Naïve birds who have not stolen other birds’ caches do not do so. This result suggests that the crows use their imagination system to anticipate what another bird might do—putting themselves in another bird’s shoes, so to speak.
Without any agreed behavioral markers of consciousness in non-speaking animals, of course, we can’t know whether crows can project themselves through time. What we do know is that when it comes to dietary choices, these birds are remarkably good at planning ahead. They plan where to cache for tomorrow’s breakfast, and they can ignore their current desires at the time of caching to choose to hide food they do not want now but have learned that they will want later.
This is no small feat, as humans often make ill-informed dietary choices because of our inability to dissociate future choices from current needs. We’ve all been grocery shopping when hungry and been persuaded to pick up extra snacks. Obesity is an increasing health problem in the Western world. If only we were more like birds, able to ignore our current desires to focus on what will be good for our future selves. The insights we gain about ourselves and the minds of other species have every potential to open doorways to new ways of thinking in all the creative disciplines known to mankind. They may provide a much needed gateway to understanding alternative and new realities, beyond our own. That could be our future: it’s where we need to go.
Nicky Clayton is Professor of Comparative Cognition in the Department of Psychology at Cambridge University and Scientist in Residence at Rambert Dance Company. Clive Wilkins is a creative writer, fine artist, performer and teacher living in the UK. They share a passion for Argentine Tango.