How Your Brain Creates Mental Time Travel

Now and then, people recall memories that are so rich in details about the time and place of an original experience that neuroscientists call it “mental time travel.”

A recent study in the Journal of Neuroscience sheds new light on how the brain processes these elaborate memories by analyzing the brain activity of individuals performing a simple memory recollection task.

The researchers find that they can use the activity patterns in a specific region of the brain to substantially improve their ability to predict the order in which the participants recall information that they have recently studied.

According to study leader Sean Polyn, assistant professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University:

“It’s extremely important that we understand what different brain regions are doing as we search through our memories. Diseases like Alzheimer’s and epilepsy are devastating to memory, and this information can help us develop treatments to preserve patients’ memories and identify adverse effects that new psychotropic drugs may have on people’s memory.”

The Medial Temporal Lobe

Scientists have known for some time that a portion of the brain called the medial temporal lobe plays a central role in memory because injuries to the MTL cause amnesia and other memory-related problems. However, they have not been able to answer the question: how does the brain control the fidelity of an individual memory?

Of course, not all memories are recalled equally.

Richly detailed memories are at one end of the spectrum. At the other are bits of information that a person remembers clearly, but in complete isolation, without any accompanying details.

Polyn, working with doctoral students James Kragel and Neal Morton, has developed a model that accounts for how the structures in the MTL support memory retrieval.

They find that the anterior region of the MTL signals that a memory is being retrieved, but doesn’t indicate how detailed it is. However, when the posterior region of the MTL becomes active, it indicates that the person is experiencing a “time travel” memory accompanied by considerable detail.

The researchers tested their model in an experiment with 20 participants (seven male and 13 female) between 18 and 35 years of age. They were put in an fMRI brain scanner and given a list of 24 names of common objects like horse, boat, and window.

Depending on the object, they were asked to decide if it was big or small, animate or inanimate. (The purpose of the question was to make them concentrate on the words.) After a brief pause, they were asked to recall the words they had just studied in the order they occurred naturally.

High Definition Memory

The researchers found that when a participant’s brain scan indicated that they recalled an object with high fidelity, then their next response was likely to be the next item on the list. However, when the brain scan indicated that the object was an isolated recollection, then the next object the person recalled could come from anywhere on the list.

For example, the participants might be asked to study the words “horse, window, robot, and boat,” in that order.

An individual who experienced a time-travel experience when he or she recalled the word “horse,” would be very likely to recall “window” immediately afterward. If, on the other hand, the person’s memory of “horse” was low fidelity, his or her next response might instead be the more distant word, “boat.”

Polyn’s group had previously developed a model of memory search that could be used to predict the order in which people would retrieve these items from memory. For example, the model predicts that people will tend to first recall the items from the end of the list, and if an item from the middle of the list is recalled, the next recollection is likely to come from a nearby list position.

Time Codes

This shows us that the brain stamps memories with a temporal code.

“This model was much better than chance at predicting what a person would recall next, but when we told the model what a person’s brain activity was at the moment they recalled a particular item, the model became much better at predicting which item would be recalled next,” Polyn says. “This demonstrates that the brain stamps memories with a temporal code. These time-travel recollections allow the brain to retrieve that temporal code, which makes memories for nearby things more accessible, in this case the next item in the list.”

The temporal code acts something like the time stamp that computers put on files. When you search for files stamped with a specific date and time, you retrieve all the files saved at the time you specify.

Time-travel memory acts in much the same way, through a process psychologists call “reinstatement”.

This process is even more flexible than a computer, in that the temporal code can help you retrieve not just memories from the exact same time, but memories nearby in time, as well.

When a strong memory is formed, it may include information about the sights, sounds, smells, emotions, and other information that was present at the time of the experience. All of this information becomes temporally linked, and time-travel memory allows a person to bring it back to mind.

Polyn’s memory model is an example of a new generation of brain simulations that are attempting to link brain activity with specific cognitive functions.

James E. Kragel, Neal W Morton1, and Sean M. Polyn
Neural Activity in the Medial Temporal Lobe Reveals the Fidelity of Mental Time Travel
The Journal of Neuroscience, 18 February 2015, 35(7): 2914-2926; doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3378-14.2015