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Mental Time Travel and the Evolution

of the Human Mind

Thomas Suddendorf and Michael C. Corballis

University of Auckland, New Zealand


We argue that the human ability to travel mentally in time constitutes a discontinuity

between ourselves and other animals. Mental time travel comprises the mental

reconstruction of personal events from the past (episodic memory) and the mental

construction of possible events in the future. It is not an isolated module, but depends

on the sophistication of other cognitive capacities, including self-awareness, meta-

representation, mental attribution, understanding the perception-knowledge

relationship, and dissociation of imagined mental states from one's present mental

state. These capacities are also important aspects of so-called "theory of mind", and

they appear to mature in children at around age four. Furthermore, mental time travel

is generative, involving the combination and recombination of familiar elements, and

in this respect may have been a precursor to language. Current evidence, although

indirect or based on anecdote rather than on systematic study, suggests that nonhuman

animals, including the great apes, are confined to a "present" that is limited by their

current drive states. In contrast, mental time travel by humans is relatively

unconstrained, and allows a more rapid and flexible adaptation to complex, changing

environments than is afforded by instincts or conventional learning. Past and future

events loom large in much of human thinking, giving rise to cultural, religious, and

scientific concepts about origins, destiny, and time itself.

The question of whether there is a discontinuity between humans and other

species is one that continues to haunt us. Despite Darwin's admonition "never to say

higher or lower", most people continue to regard humans as at the top of the

evolutionary tree. Perhaps this conceit is simply an example of a "false consensus

bias" (Ross, Green, & House, 1977) created by Western scholars raised in the

Christian tradition, which perpetuates an unbridgeable gap separating humans from

other animals. Certainly, there are other religious traditions that emphasize continuity

rather than discontinuity; Hinduism, for example, views animal and human minds as

stages differing in merely quantitative fashion in the progression toward Nirvana.

In some respects, modern scientific enquiry is also narrowing the gap. There is

evidence that aspects of human thought that only a few years ago were assumed to be

uniquely human, such as symbolic thought, the use and manufacture of tools, or self-

awareness, may also be present in the great apes (e.g., Gallup, 1983; Goodall, 1986;

Greenfield & Savage-Rumbaugh, 1990). In order to sustain the belief in the divide

between us and our nearest primate relatives, some researchers have resorted to

increasingly restrictive definitions of qualities, such as language, that have been

traditionally considered uniquely human (Gibson, 1990, 1993). Where it was once

believed that only humans manufacture tools, for example, more recent evidence

forced the more restrictive claim that only humans use tools to make tools (Beck,

1980). Now even this can be disputed (e.g., Toth, Schick, Savage-Rumbaugh, Sevcik,

& Rumbaugh, 1993; Westergaard & Suomi, 1994; Wynn & McGrew, 1989). There is

also recent evidence that some great apes, in contrast to monkeys, may have at least

some of the elements of a "theory of mind" (Premack, 1988; Premack & Woodruff,

1978) that is manifest in a number of ways. These include the use of pedagogy in both

the laboratory (Fouts, Fouts, & van Cantfort, 1989) and the field (Boesch, 1991),

deception of conspecifics (Whiten & Byrne, 1991), displays of apparent empathy and

compassion (Boesch, 1992), the ability to imitate (Byrne, 1994; Meador, Rumbaugh,

Pate, & Bard, 1987), and the more general ability to imagine other possible worlds

(Byrne & Whiten, 1992). On the basis of such evidence, one may even be tempted to

relocate the "gap" so that it separates the great apes, rather than only humans, from the

other animals (Savage-Rumbaugh, 1994b).

Despite all this, there remains a strong case for a substantial gap between

humans and the great apes, if only because of the profound effect that humans have

had on the physical environment. As Passingham (1982) put it: "Our species is unique

because, in only 35,000 years or so, we have revolutionized the face of the earth" (p.

21). This rampant exploitation of the environment may be regarded as part of a more

general human capacity for generativity--a capacity that also underlies propositional

language, mathematics, and perhaps music and dance (Chomsky, 1988; Corballis,

1992, 1994). The origins of this capacity, however, remain in doubt (Bloom, 1994).

In this article we suggest one aspect of human thought that may conceivably

claim some priority in the emergence of a uniquely human mode of thought. We refer

to the ability to travel mentally in time--an ability that is itself characterized by

generativity and combinatorial flexibility. The idea that mental time travel might be

uniquely human was proposed by the German psychologist Wolfgang K�hler, whose

pioneering work on the mentality of apes anticipated many of the more recent

discoveries. Although he was able to show that chimpanzees were capable of using

mental processes such as insight to solve problems, he was compelled to acknowledge

an important limitation: "`The time in which the chimpanzee lives' is limited in past

and future" (K�hler, 1917/1927, p. 272; our italics). In a recent review, Donald (1991)

remarked similarly that the lives of apes "are lived entirely in the present" (p. 149),

and the same idea has been expressed by Bischof (1978; 1985), Tulving (1983),

Savage-Rumbaugh (1994a, 1994b), and Suddendorf (1994). We humans, by contrast,

make persistent reference to events that are not limited to the present. Events as

remote as the crucifixion of Christ exert a profound influence on large numbers of

people. We even tackle questions about the extent of time itself by developing

religious or scientific concepts such as genesis, judgment day, or the "big bang".

Much of what we talk or write about refers to events that happened in the past, or

could happen in the future, suggesting that language itself may be intimately related to

time travel. Indeed it may not be too far-fetched to suppose that mental time travel lies

at the heart of human consciousness.

Although our concern is with mental time travel in both directions, we begin

by considering the ability to mentally reconstruct the past.

Mental Travel into the Past

Before people could concern themselves with history they must have been able

to remember their personal past. It has often been suggested that there is a

fundamental difference between animal and human memory (e.g., Bischof, 1985;

Marshall, 1982; Tulving, 1983). So long as we regard memory as simply the ability to

learn from past experience, however, the difference must be considered one of degree,

at most, since other animals obviously possess memory in this sense. The case for a

memory that is distinctly and uniquely human therefore depends on the proposition

that there is more than one kind of memory, at least one of which is possessed only by


The idea that there is at least a dual memory system arose from work on

amnesia. The famous subject H.M. has dense amnesia for events and knowledge

dating from his temporal lobe surgery in 1953, and indeed for memories dating some

years prior to that, yet his behaviour can still be influenced by past events without his

being aware of it (see Ogden & Corkin, 1991, for a recent review). His amnesia seems

to apply only to so-called explicit memories, or what Squire (1992) alternatively

describes as declarative memories; these represent memories that can be declared, or

brought into conscious awareness. Memories that seem to be unaffected in amnesia

are those that we are not aware of, and include those implied by such phenomena as

learned motor and cognitive skills, classical and operant conditioning, priming,

habituation, and sensitization. Such memories have been called implicit or

nondeclarative memories.

As the case of H.M. illustrates, declarative memories appear to be critically

dependent on structures in the medial temporal lobe, including the hippocampus.

Squire (1992) has summarized evidence that these structures appear to mediate similar

memory systems in rats, monkeys, and humans, implying that the distinction between

declarative and nondeclarative memory cannot provide the basis for a discontinuity

between humans and other mammalian species.

However, Tulving (1972, 1983) has proposed a further division between

semantic and episodic memory systems, and Squire (1992) suggests that this

distinction lies within the declarative system. As formulated by Tulving, semantic

memory has to do with general knowledge about the world, of the sort that is normally

common to people of a given culture, whereas episodic memory represents the

individual's personal experiences. Where semantic memories transcend space and

time, episodic memories are linked to particular events in one's personal past that are

spatially and temporally located. Tulving (1983, 1984) has further conjectured that,

although semantic memory may be common to humans and other animals, episodic

memory is uniquely human.

Not surprisingly, this conjecture has met with opposition. Following Roitblat

(1982), Olton (1984) noted that animal behavior often seems to indicate the existence

of a trace of an earlier event, as in a trial of a delayed conditioned discrimination task,

or in foraging where an animal must remember not to go to the same flower twice to

obtain nectar. According to Olton, such observations imply that the animal

"represents" a past event, and therefore possesses episodic memory. But, as Dretske

(1982) points out, an event A might produce a cognitive change B that affects

behavior C at a later point in time, but this need not imply that B carries any

information about A itself. That is, the mediator B might be causal rather than


Tulving appears to have accepted that this is so, and in his latest formulation

of the nature of episodic memory, he is clear that it holds the key to mental time

The owner of an episodic memory system is not only capable of remembering

the temporal organization of otherwise unrelated events, but is also capable of mental

time travel: Such a person can transport at will into the personal past, as well as into

the future, a feat not possible for other kinds of memory (Tulving, 1993, p. 67).
Tulving also refers to evidence (Shimamura, Janowsky, & Squire, 1990) that episodic

memory may depend on frontal-lobe structures rather than--or perhaps as well as--the

medial temporal-lobe and diencephalic structures that appear to be critical to semantic

memory. Given the prominent expansion of the frontal lobes in hominid evolution

(Deacon, 1990), this might be taken as a further indication that episodic memory is

unique to humans.

Relation to other Mental Capacities

There is evidence that episodic memory is not simply a memory system, but is

critically dependent on other mental capacities, and it may even be these capacities,

rather than the nature of the storage involved, that distinguishes humans from other

species. The term "memory" is often associated with a fixed databank (e.g., a library),

but this metaphor seems more appropriate for semantic knowledge than for episodic

memory. Unlike retrieval of facts, retrieval of past episodes usually recodes, or

updates, the information (Tulving, 1984)1. Freud (1895/1966) long ago observed that

even memories that reveal themselves as images require a story grammar if they are to

be distinguished from random hallucinations. The storyline, however, is often

reconstructed on the basis of general knowledge (semantic memory) rather than on

what actually happened (Bartlett, 1932), so that the memory trace itself may play a

relatively small part. Thus, active reconstruction, rather than mere retrieval, appears to

be essential to episodic memory, and this necessitates the involvement of certain

cognitive faculties. We now consider some of them:

The Role of the Self. According to Tulving (1985), the different kinds of

memory are linked to different levels of "knowing": Nondeclarative memory is

anoetic (non-knowing), semantic memory is noetic (knowing), while episodic

memory is autonoetic (self-knowing). This suggests that episodic memory is critically

dependent on the concept of self. The relation between the two may actually be

bidirectional: On the one hand, in providing autobiographical information about one's

own past, episodic memories may be said to provide the basis for personal identity.

On the other hand, one may also need an awareness of self in the present in order to be

able to relate memory representations to experiences of one's self in the past (Howe &

Courage, 1993). It is therefore necessary to dissociate a self-concept in the present

from personal identity (or self-concept through time), the former being a prerequisite

for mental time travel and the latter the consequence of mental time travel.

In human ontogeny, the development of self-awareness is commonly assessed

in terms of children's ability to recognize themselves in a mirror (e.g., Amsterdam,

1972). Some marker, such as red paint or a sticker, is placed on the child's forehead in

the absence of his or her knowledge. A mirror is then placed in front of the child and

the question is whether or not the child notices and responds to the marker. While this

test may measure a basic sense of self, necessary for episodic memory, it clearly falls

short of measuring the temporal aspect that underlies the personal identity of an adult.

The latter may be characterized by, what according to Humphrey (1986) are, the most

crucial of all questions: "Where have we come from? What are we? Where are we

going?" These self-defining questions signify the existence of mental time travel, but

the mirror test alone does not uncover their presence. The self-awareness that

the test reveals may also be limited in other ways. According to Hart and Fegley

(1994), it reveals objective but not subjective self-awareness; that is, children or

chimpanzees who recognize themselves in a mirror may understand that the body they

see is their own, but do not necessarily endow that body with their own subjective

states. If Hart and Fegley's distinction is valid, then it is presumably subjective self-

awareness that is required in mental time travel into the past, since one must identify

episodic memories with one's own experience, not merely with one's own body. There

is evidence that subjective self-awareness is lost following prefrontal lobotomies

(Freeman & Watts, 1942), which may explain the dependence of episodic memory on

frontal-lobe function.

Mitchell (1994) makes a similar point. He identifies three levels of self:
1. the self as largely implicit, a point of view that experiences, acts and, at least

in the case of mammals and birds, has emotions and feelings;

2. the self as built on kinesthetic-visual matching, leading to [mirror self-

recognition], imitation, pretense, planning, self-conscious emotions, and imaginative

experiences of fantasy and daydreams; and contributing to perspective taking and the

beginnings of a theory of mind; and

3. the self as built on symbols, language and artifacts, which provides external

support for shared cultural beliefs, social norms, inner speech, dissociation, and

evaluation by others as well as self evaluation. (p. 99)
These of course correspond at least roughly to Tulving's three categories of anoetic,

noetic, and autonoetic thought, except that Mitchell's Level 2 seems to involve a more

active concept of self than Tulving's notion of noetic thought. However Mitchell

places autobiography in Level 3, implying that episodic memory belongs there rather

than in Level 2.

The critical aspect of episodic memory that raises it above Level 2 may in fact

be dissociation, which Mitchell identifies with such phenomena as multiple-

personality disorders, hypnosis, self-deception, denial, or simply driving on a well-

known route while thinking about something else. We shall contend that episodic

memory requires the dissociation of past from present, or more accurately, the

dissociation of past from present self, and it is this critical feature that elevates it to

Level 3.

Temporal Components. One aspect of episodic memory that appears not to be

encoded in the trace itself is the order of events. Reviewing the evidence, Friedman

(1993) recently concluded thus:
In spite of the common intuition that chronology is a basic property of

autobiographical memory, the research reviewed demonstrates that there is no single,

natural temporal code in human memory. Instead, a chronological past depends on a

process of active, repeated construction. (p. 44)

Even the sense of "pastness" of an episode may not be inherent in the memory itself

and may need to be added. One illustration of this is the phenomenon of d�j� vu, in

which we have the experience of reliving a past episode in the absence of an actual

memory (Bowers & Hilgard, 1986). Conversely, "[h]aving--and even using--a

memory representation of a prior event is not sufficient to ensure the subjective

experience of remembering" (Jacoby, Kelley, & Dywan, 1989, p. 417). These

examples suggest that the sense of pastness may be doubly dissociated from actual


Meta-representation. The conferring of "pastness" on a remembered episode

further implies the ability to form meta-representations of one's knowledge. Meta-

representation, according to Perner (1991), is representing a representation as a

representation. That is, in addition to the primary representation (e.g., I am in a park),

one has to understand that this representation is a memory. Other primary

representations that comprise memories (e.g., I go shopping; I play ball) can then be

constructed into a past episode (I was in a park, played ball, then went shopping). The

ability to selectively choose representations and organize them into past episodes is a

characteristic of human mental time travel that demands flexible access to one's own


Attribution. The conferring of pastness may also be regarded as an act of

attribution. That is, in recollecting some past event we attribute it to the experience of

an earlier self. Such attributions may well parallel our ability to attribute mental states,

such as beliefs, desires, and emotions, to other people. Even memory states may be

attributed to others as well as to ourselves; we usually assume that if we have shared

an experience with another person, then that person will remember it too. A good deal

of human conversation consists of mutual time travels down memory lane. Shared

memories are the glue for the enlarged and complex social nets that characterize our

species, and that go well beyond mere kinship.

Understanding the Relation Between Perception and Knowledge. As pointed

out above, in addition to knowing something about a past event, one has to meta-

represent this knowledge and attribute it to the experience of an earlier self in order to

mentally travel into the past. Re-experiencing the event, that is, representing how this

information became known, demands some understanding of the contingency between

perception and the formation of knowledge (Perner, 1991; Perner & Ruffman, 1995).

If one does not know that knowledge is the result of experience and that experience

depends on the different channels of sensation and perception, one can scarcely

reconstruct a particular experience from current information. Knowledge about the

taste, colour, shape, temperature, etc. of an object can only have entered one's system

in specific ways. The awareness that one knows something because it has been

experienced (autonoetic, or self-knowing, consciousness) and the subsequent ability to

mentally re-experience it, require an understanding about how experience is formed.

We have identified several basic cognitive capacities that seem to be required

for a fully fledged episodic memory system. Mental travel into the past demands some

level of self-awareness, an imagination capable of reconstructing the order of events,

an understanding of the perception-knowledge contingency, an ability to meta-

represent one's knowledge, to dissociate from one's current mental states and to

attribute past mental states to one's earlier self. Some of these capacities seem to

overlap and they seem so basic and natural to us that we find it hard to conceive of a

mind without them. Yet, as we will see in the next section, only by about the age of

four are they properly installed in the human brain.

Human Ontogeny of Mental Travel into the Past

Nondeclarative memory can be shown to exist right after birth. Visual

habituation (Friedman, 1972) and auditory recognition (DeCasper & Fifer, 1980)

confirm that information is stored right from the start. In fact, familiarity effects can

be observed even prior to birth (DeCasper & Spence, 1986). At the age of three

months, experience with a particular stimulus has effects for up to a week (Rovee-

Collier, Sullivan, Enright, Lucas, & Fagan, 1980). Recent studies, such as that of

Bauer, Hertsgaard, and Dow (1995) using elicited imitation, showed that experiences

of one-year-olds can influence responses a year later.

Recall, in its widest sense, can first be observed at about seven months when

infants will begin to look for objects that moved out of sight (Ashmead & Perlmutter,

1980). The development of "object-permanence" (Piaget, 1954), i.e., the

understanding that objects continue to exist independently of our perception, is

however far from complete by this age. By ten months, infants can correctly locate an

object hidden under one of two identical cloths if there is a delay of up to eight

seconds between witnessing the placement of the object and being allowed to choose

(Diamond, 1985). At longer delays, performance deteriorates to a chance level. By 16-

18 months, the critical delay period has expanded to 20 seconds (Daechler, Bukatko,

Benson, & Myers 1976).

Declarative memory is evident when by two to three years of age children

begin to reproduce details about past events (e.g., Fivush, Gray, & Fromhoff, 1987)

and this knowledge can be retained for a year and a half (Fivush & Hamond, 1990).

However, Perner and Ruffman (1995) cite evidence that these memory reports differ

substantially from those of older children. They require a lot more cuing and the

questions asked by adults strongly influence the structure of the recall. Perner and

Ruffman (1995) argue that these young children know (semantic memory) rather than

remember (episodic memory) what has happened. We will come back to their

argument shortly. Others, for example Nelson (1992), argue that these early memories

are episodic, but that they do not become truly autobiographic until age four. Only

then can they later be recalled and become part of one's life story. Here, the

phenomenon of childhood amnesia comes into play.

Childhood amnesia, or the inability of adults to remember their early

childhood, begins to fall away at about age three to four (Loftus, 1993; Pillemer &

White, 1989; Sheingold & Tenny, 1982). If adults can have an episodic memory

(recollective experience) of events from that age, then it follows that episodic memory

must exist by that age. The question that remains is therefore whether episodic

memory exists prior to the fading of childhood amnesia. The fact that younger

children can report knowledge about events when prompted may reflect only semantic

rather than episodic memory, just as the early use of the words "remember" and

"forget" appears to be misleading. Lyon and Flavell (1994) showed recently that four-

but not three-year-olds understand the sense of pastness implied by those words. The

younger children use these terms merely to describe current success (remember) or

failure (forget).

But what about the development of those capacities that we argued to be

essential for a fully-fledged episodic memory system? Do their maturations converge

at the age of three to four? If so, then mental travel into the past, as outlined by us, can

only emerge at this age. Let us now have a closer look at the development of the

preconditions for episodic memory.

Self-awareness. At the age of 18-24 months children pass the mirror-

recognition test (Amsterdam, 1972). We may assume that at this stage the prerequisite

for episodic memory is achieved. However, as stated above, the self-concept implied

by the mirror test need not extend to the more general adult sense of personal identity

that extends through time. The emergence of the latter might be tested by introducing

a delayed condition to the mirror test. Povinelli (in press) has reported intriguing

preliminary results bearing on this issue. In studies with his colleagues Landau and

Perillonx he marked two, three- and four-year-old children by putting stickers on their

foreheads. When he showed the children a video of this action two minutes later, 75%

of the four-year-olds reached up immediately to remove the sticker, while none of the

two year-olds and only 25% of the three-year olds did so. All of the two and three

year-olds immediately removed the sticker when the video was replaced by a mirror,

providing direct feedback, confirming the earlier evidence that even two-year-olds

pass the mirror test (e.g., Amsterdam, 1972). So, while the mirror test demonstrates

the onset of a self-concept at around age two, the temporal dimension appears not to

emerge until age three to four.

Temporal reconstruction. Mental time travel also implies that the order of

events in time can be reconstructed, and Friedman (1991, 1992) has shown that four-

year-olds are capable of making correct earlier vs. later judgements about past events.

Between four and about eight years children acquire an explicit knowledge about the

culturally dependent time scales (e.g., days, weeks, months etc.) that assist the

structuring of one's own past experiences. The basic reconstructive capacity, however,

might be in place in children even younger than four.

Meta-representation. It has been argued that meta-representation first

manifests in form of pretense (Leslie, 1987). Whether the representations of the

pretended and real world are hierarchically organized is still debated (see Jarrold,

Carruthers, Smith, & Boucher, 1994, for a critical appraisal). Pretend play develops in

the second year and therefore clearly precedes the proposed time frame for the

emergence of mental travel into the past. However, complex social pretend play as

well as individual pantomime develop later at around age three and a half, and only

then, it has been argued, may pretend play be based on meta-representation (Jarrold et

al., 1994; Suddendorf & Fletcher-Flinn, 1996). This would be consistent with the

emergence of meta-representation in other domains such as in mental attribution.

Mental Attribution. The utilization of representational skills for the attribution

of mental states, develops progressively between age two and four, from attributing

desires and intention to knowledge and belief and, finally, false beliefs (Gopnik, 1993;

Wellman, 1991; Whiten, 1991; Wimmer & Perner, 1983). At first, the new attribution

of mentality is characterized by overgeneralization, or what has been called animism.

By three and a half to four years, when they finally pass appearance-reality and false

belief tasks (Astington, Harris, & Olson, 1988; Flavell, 1993; Gopnik & Astington,

1988; Wimmer & Perner, 1983), are children said to have a `theory of mind', a truly

representational view of the world, including the meta-understanding that

representations can be wrong, can be changed, and depend on informational access

(e.g., Perner, 1991). Meta-representational dissociation from primary mental states

becomes evident.

For our purposes it is important to note that this development is not restricted

to the attribution of mental states to others, but appears to include the attribution of

past mental states (to a past self and others). In a classical false-belief paradigm, for

example, three-year-olds fail to understand that their current knowledge that there are

pencils and not smarties in the candy box is not available to others; that is, they

wrongly predict that another child also believes the box to contain pencils. They also

fail to understand that, before they were shown to the contrary, they once believed the

box to contain smarties (Gopnik & Astington, 1988). This is also true of intentions,

desires and beliefs. Gopnik and Slaughter (1991) showed that three-year-olds,

although able to recall past mental states of pretence, imagination and perception,

have severe difficulties remembering past mental states of desire, intention and belief.

In regard to past knowledge, Gopnik and her colleagues (Gopnik & Graf,

1988; O'Neill & Gopnik, 1991) demonstrated young children's difficulty in recalling

the source of their current knowledge, even though the learning event may have

occurred only minutes ago. The children can report the content of learning before they

become able to recall the learning event itself. Taylor, Esbensen, and Bennett (1994)

found that even older children (4 and 5) have problems with source memory for

recently acquired skills and color names. Those children who claim to have known the

names yesterday, while in fact they learned them today, also tend to claim that they

have always known them.

In sum, two- and three-year-olds have problems representing their own (and

others') former mental states of desire, intention, knowledge and belief. This severely

limits their potential ability for mental travel into the past. Gopnik and Slaughter

(1991) acknowledge this point when they write that their findings (see above) "may

have implications for the development of fully-fledged, autobiographic, episodic

memory. One characteristic of such memory is that we not only know that past events

took place, but we also know that we experienced and represented them in a particular

way" (p.109). It poses severe limits for the ability to reconstruct the narrative of past

events, if one cannot represent what one (and others involved) wanted, intended,

knew, and believed, and how these mental states changed.

Perhaps mental attribution and mental travel in time develop quite similarly.

Here is a suggestion. One view on how children develop mental state attribution is via

simulation (Gordon, 1986; Harris, 1991; Humphrey, 1986; Johnson, 1988). At first,

the child's own state may interfere with the pretense, but by the age of four children,

by now consummate actors, can detach from their own states to assume the states of

others. At this point, then, there is dissociation. A similar pattern may characterize the

development of episodic memory. That is, young children may have difficulty

simulating their own past experiences because they cannot escape their present one.

Interestingly, Kinsbourne (1989) has attributed the memory failures shown by patients

with Korsakoff syndrome to the same difficulty, and not to the loss of memory per se.

By the age of four, however, the child can escape the present and simulate the past

without interference. The simulation account for the development of mental

attribution is, however, not undisputed (see "Mental Simulation", 1992, for a thorough

discussion). It is therefore premature to assume the validity of the proposed parallel

development of mental time travel and mindreading via simulation.

Be this as it may, the development of the final precondition adds further

empirical evidence to the argument for the late (around age four) emergence of

episodic memory.

Understanding the Relationship between Perception and Knowledge. The

research on source memory (see above) already indicates that children younger than

four may not understand much about the relationship between perception and

knowledge. Wimmer, Hogrefe, and Perner (1988) studied this understanding

explicitly and found indeed that four-year-olds, but not three-year olds, correctly

answered questions regarding informational access (e.g., seeing) and current


Perner (Perner, 1991; Perner & Ruffman, 1995) saw the connection to episodic

memory and sought empirical support for the claim. He appealed to Tulving's (1985)

finding that subjects tend to report items in a free recall condition to be

"remembered", while items in cued recall conditions are deemed "known". Perner and

Ruffman (1995) cite several other studies (e.g., Gardiner & Java, 1990) in support of

the claim that the adult judgement of whether items are remembered or known is a

valid measure. The argument, then, is that in recognition one can use semantic cues to

retrieve the items (which results in knowing), while in free recall retrieval depends

largely on internal episodic traces, especially the awareness of having experienced, i.e.

perceived, the item (which results in remembering). The target group, preschool

children, of course cannot be asked to make a valid judgement about this (see the

results of Lyon and Flavell, 1994, above). But, if the reasoning is correct, one would

expect to find a correlation between free recall and children's performance on tests

that measure their understanding of the relationship between informational access and

knowing. Those who pass these tests should do much better on free recall tasks than

should those who fail, while no significant difference would be expected in their

performance on recognition tasks.

This hypothesis has been tested in four experiments instigated by Perner

(1991) and Perner and Ruffman (1995). And, indeed, a strong and significant

correlation (r >.4) between free recall and various measures of an understanding of

how perception leads to knowledge has been found. This correlation remained

significant even after correlations with cued recall and intelligence (i.e. scores on the

BPVS) were partialed out. Thus, the results strongly support the idea that

understanding the perception-knowledge relationship is essential for episodic memory

(performance in free recall) because it entails the ability to represent the experiential

origin of one's knowledge (a so-called episodic trace). This understanding, according

to Perner's results, develops gradually between the ages three and six. Prior to this, a

child can only know something about past events but cannot reexperience the event in

the way required for true episodic memory.

Perner and Ruffman (1995) also conclude that their findings provide an

explanation for the phenomenon of childhood amnesia in that the development of true

episodic memory is causing it to fade, somewhere between age three and four. We

believe this claim is supported by our analysis of the development of the other

cognitive capacities which we hold to be important for mental travel into the past.

While the earliest form of meta-representation may develop in the second year, only

by three and a half to four years of age can children properly use this ability to

attribute past mental states (such as desires, intentions, knowledge, belief and false

beliefs) to their past selves. Only then can their personal past experiences be properly

reconstructed. This, in turn, is necessary to the formation of a record of one's history:

the foundation of a personal identity.

Howe and Courage (1993) have proposed a relationship between the cognitive

sense of self and childhood amnesia. While first empirical evidence for a sense of self

develops at 18 to 24 months, it may rather be Povinelli's (in press) delayed paradigm

that accurately measures the emergence of an identity through time. Taken together

with the results of Perner's studies, we believe that we have an explanation both for

childhood amnesia and the subsequent emergence of episodic memory at about the

age of three and a half.

Support for the Model from a Clinical Population:

The Case of Autism

Finally, we are going to have a look at a disorder that, we believe, supports our

argument and nicely wraps up most of the points being made so far. If our argument is

correct, then clinical populations that lack one or more of the proposed requirements

should consequently be impaired in their mental time travel ability. On the other hand,

if clinical populations exist who, despite lacking these proposed prerequisites, show

proper mental time travel, then this would clearly contradict our argument.

At least one disorder has been claimed to be based on a lack of `theory of

mind': autism (e.g., Baron-Cohen, 1995; Baron-Cohen, Leslie, & Frith, 1985).

Deficits have been shown in autistic children's ability to meta-represent (e.g., Baron-

Cohen, 1989; Frith, 1989), to understand the perception-knowledge relationship (e.g.,

Baron-Cohen & Goodhart, 1994; Leslie & Frith, 1988), to distinguish appearance

from reality (Baron-Cohen, 1989) and to attribute mental states to others and

themselves (e.g., Baron-Cohen, 1995, Perner, Frith, Leslie, & Leekam, 1989). It has to

be noted that a small minority of autistic people do overcome these deficits to some

extend. In fact, various degrees of autism (e.g., regarding IQ and verbal ability) make

this clinical group very heterogenous. Our hypothesis, therefore, predicts that most

(i.e., those without the proposed requirements) autistic children are impaired in the

ability to travel mentally in time.

Although people with autism can have a good and sometimes even

extraordinary ability for rote memory (e.g., associative and cued memory, Boucher &

Warrington, 1976), episodic memory seems to be impaired (Boucher & Lewis, 1989;

Powell & Jordan, 1993). Powell and Jordan (1993) speak of a lack of `personal

episodic memory' where events can be recalled but individuals are unable to

"remember themselves performing actions, participating in events or possessing

knowledge and strategies" (p. 362). They further argue that an `experiencing self',

much like the one invoked by Perner and Ruffman (1995), is needed to code episodes

as part of a personal dimension. In accordance with Perner and Ruffman's (1995)

findings, then, it has to be noted that Boucher and Lewis (1989) as well as Tager-

Flusberg (1991) found autistic children to be impaired in free, but not in cued, recall.

Tager-Flusberg acknowledges that, as suggested by Perner for young children, lack of

experiential awareness may be responsible for autistic children's impaired episodic

memory and consequent deficits in free recall.

According to Powell and Jordan (1992) a "continuing sense of self `from the

inside'" (p. 362) rather than a mere sense of self as seen `from the outside' is needed

for this kind of memory. `Sense of self from the outside' clearly reminds us of what is

measured by the mirror-recognition task and the distinction from self `from the inside'

strikingly resembles that of Hart and Fegley's (1994) between subjective and objective

self-awareness. Without this subjective or `inside' sense of self and the accompanying

`theory of mind', children with autism appear to be, as was predicted, unable to

mentally transport themselves into their past, re-experience the events and see the

causal relation between past and present self. We would therefore predict that while

autistic children can recognize themselves in a mirror (Dawson & McKissick, 1984)

they will fail the delayed video version of the task. Further research is needed to

address this issue and to determine and investigate only those individuals who lack

our proposed prerequisites.

We argued above that one crucial underpinning of `theory of mind' and mental

time travel might be the ability to dissociate from one's current state. This ability also

appears to be impaired in most autistic children. "`Executive function' is an umbrella

term for the mental operations which enable an individual to disengage from the

immediate context in order to guide behaviour by reference to mental models and

future goals" (Hughes, Russel, & Robbins, 1994, p. 477), and evidence for executive

dysfunction in autistic children has accumulated in recent years (e.g., Hughes &

Russel, 1993; Hughes, Russel, & Robbins, 1994; Ozonoff, Pennington, & Rogers,

1991). While the relationship between executive functions and `theory of mind' is still

debated (e.g., Baron-Cohen, 1995; Russel, Jarrold, & Potel, 1994), autistic children's

inability to disengage or dissociate from the present and to form strategic plans

demonstrates impairment of mental travel into the future. Harris (1991) noted the lack

of planning that is entailed by typical characteristics of autism: Lack of flexibility and

the tendency to engage in stereotyped and routinized actions. Thus, while further

research is needed, current knowledge about autism supports our here presented


Having substantiated our model and established that the proposed mental

capacities required for mental travel into the past develop only at about age three and

a half, we shall now review the evidence on whether they develop in animals at all.

Evidence for the Existence of the Required Capacities in Animals

The vast literature on animal memory (see Kendrik, Rilling, & Denny, 1986,

for a review) demonstrates clearly that we are not the only species benefiting from

past experience. However, the question of whether other animals mentally reconstruct

the past, have recollective experience, or, in other words, travel mentally into the past,

cannot be answered by these data. Nonetheless, research on the related capacities may

shed light on this question.

Self-awareness. The role of the self may not be sufficient to deny all other

animals the capacity for episodic memory, since there is evidence that the concept of

self is not restricted to humans. Chimpanzees (Gallup, 1970), gorillas (Patterson,

1991), and orangutans (Suarez & Gallup, 1981) appear to demonstrate self-

recognition in a mirror (see also Parker, Mitchell, and Boccia, 1994, for a recent

review). Monkeys and even elephants and parrots can learn how a mirror works (e.g.,

correctly using mirrored information about approaching objects), but unlike the great

apes they cannot locate markings viewed in a mirror if these are on their own bodies

(Anderson, 1986; Gallup, 1994; Pepperberg, Garcia, Jackson, & Marconi, 1995;

Povinelli, 1989). This area of research is somewhat controversial, however, since

there is also evidence that some chimpanzees do not show self-recognition on the

mirror test, even after extended exposure to their own mirror images (Swartz & Evans,

1991), and the data on gorillas are also somewhat equivocal (e.g., Povinelli, 1993).

Even so, this work at least raises the possibility that the great apes are capable of a

concept of self, and therefore possess one of the prerequisites for episodic memory.

Whether they can pass Povinelli's delayed version remains to be seen. We would

expect them not to pass this test, for reasons that will become clear in the following


Temporal order. Great apes have provided some evidence for the ability to

imagine other possible worlds (see Byrne & Whiten, 1992). Furthermore, even

monkeys and pigeons have been shown to learn serial orders (e.g., Terrace &

McGonigle, 1994). Whether great apes can use their imagination to reconstruct the

order of past events, however, remains questionable. For what it is worth, it can be

noted that none of the ape-language studies have resulted in apes acquiring tense or


Meta-representation. There is some evidence that great apes may be capable of

some degree of meta-representation. There are some records of seemingly pretend

play with imaginary objects (e.g., Hayes, 1951; Savage-Rumbaugh, 1986; Savage-

Rumbaugh & McDonald, 1988). Furthermore, Whiten and Byrne (1991) argue that

tool manufacture and insightful spontaneous problem solving (e.g. K�hler,

1917/1927) by great apes also indicates their meta-representational ability. It remains

debatable whether these observations indicate representation of a higher order, but if

we accept similar behavioural evidence for children (e.g., Leslie, 1987), then we

should also grant it to apes. It is interesting to note that, just as with mirror self-

recognition, only the great apes show these behaviors, while monkeys do not.

Mental Attribution and the Perception-Knowledge Relationship. A similar

discrepancy can be observed in regard to knowledge representation and mental

attribution. On the basis of extensive observations in the wild, Cheney and Seyfarth

(1990) have inferred that monkeys are not able to recognize and internally represent

their own knowledge. Just as people with "blindsight" are not consciously aware that

they have vision, so monkeys do not seem to know what they know, or even that they

know (Gallup, 1983; Humphrey, 1986). If this were the case we could hardly expect

them to know how they got to know what they currently know; that is, they could not

have Perner and Ruffman's "experiential awareness" and thus episodic memory. Great

apes, on the other hand, have provided at least suggestive evidence that they may have

at least some elements of a `theory of mind'.

In fact, the whole enterprise of studying `theory of mind' development was

triggered by Premack and Woodruff's (1978) experiments suggesting that

chimpanzees attribute intention. This has received at least some support. Records of

apparent compassion (e.g., Goodall, 1986), perhaps even empathy (Boesch, 1992),

cooperation (e.g., de Waal, 1982, 1989; Menzel, 1974), imitation (Byrne, 1994;

Meador et al., 1987), role-taking (Povinelli, Nelson, & Boysen, 1992; Povinelli,

Parks, & Novak, 1992) and tactical deception (e.g., Byrne & Whiten, 1990, 1992;

Whiten & Byrne, 1988) can be cited in support of the claim that great apes may have

at least some understanding of motivational mental states. There is virtually no

evidence for these qualities in monkeys.

Evidence for the attribution of informational states, such as knowledge and

belief, is less extensive. There are at least two recorded incidences of teaching

(Boesch, 1992; Fouts et al., 1989). Although several ingenious attempts to

experimentally prove that chimpanzees attribute informational states (Povinelli,

Nelson, & Boysen, 1990; Premack, 1988) have been published, none has provided

unequivocal evidence (Heyes, 1993; Gagliardi, Kirkpatrick-Steger, Thomas, Allen, &

Blumberg, 1995). The only published attempts to show that apes may represent false

beliefs, and thus have a fully-fledged `theory of mind', were unsuccessful (Premack,

1988; Premack & Dasser, 1991).

Heyes (e.g., 1993) has recently argued that all of the ape behavior that has

been cited as evidence for `theory of mind' can be explained by learning processes,

without the need to postulate the attribution of mental states. Accepting her position

would mean that there is no reason to believe that even apes have the capacity for

mental travel into the past. But even if we suppose that Heyes wielded Occam's razor

a little too vigorously, and that chimpanzees can draw some inferences about the

mental states of others (a view favoured by the authors), there may still be a

significant gap between chimpanzees and humans (Premack, 1988). Apes may have

developed only to the level of attributing motivational states. This, in the light of the

importance of understanding past knowledge and belief, would render proper episodic

memory impossible. If apes `only' fail to understand false beliefs, then they would still

be short of comprehending the full extend of the perception-knowledge relationship.

According to Perner and Ruffman's (1995) analysis, this shortcoming alone would

make episodic memory impossible. Furthermore, if our proposed model is correct,

then dissociation - the ability to simultaneously entertain different, even opposing

mental states - is required for both, mental time travel and attribution of false beliefs.

We have no reason to believe that chimpanzees, or any other animal, has mastered this

mental feat.

Finally, while we acknowledge the risk of arguing from ontogeny to

phylogeny, the timing of the onset of episodic memory in humans may put it out of

reach for chimpanzees. Premack (1988) and Parker and Gibson (1979) have proposed

as a rule of thumb that what a child of three and a half cannot do also cannot be done

by a chimpanzee. This appears to be true, for example, of language development (e.g.,

Bickerton, 1986; Pinker, 1994). This need not imply that chimpanzees are simply

developmentally arrested children (cf., Povinelli, 1993); species-specific differences

in mental capacities surely exist, and may be qualitative as well as quantitative.

Nevertheless, if we are to ask whether chimpanzees have the ability to mentally travel

in time, it seems reasonable to ask whether they can master the steps that humans have

to master in the process of acquiring that ability. On present evidence we have to

answer this question in the negative.

Mental Travel into the Future

In view of the generative aspect of episodic memory, it seems reasonable to

suppose that basically the same mechanisms might be involved in imagining the

future as in constructing the past. Time travel into the future is in a sense an

extrapolation from time travel into the past, similarly involving the ability to escape

the influence of the current mental state. The same mental platform might be used to

entertain scenarios in different modes (such as what was, would, could, should, might

or will be).

It is important to distinguish mental time travel into the future from

anticipatory behavior. This is a distinction that in some respects parallels that between

episodic and other memory systems, which may reflect the influence of the past

without necessarily involving mental time travel into the past. Similarly, many

behaviors involve anticipation of future events in some way, but need not involve the

actual simulation or imagining of future events. The link with memory runs even

closer; learning and memory are themselves as much oriented to the future as to the

past, because they increase the organism's chances of future survival.

Insight-free instincts, such as hibernation, provide a further mechanism for

dealing with recurring environmental changes, but again there is no need for the

organism to actually imagine the future. Hibernators prepare for winter even if they

have not experienced that season before. True anticipation of the future, involving the

imagining of different scenarios, is what we might consider intelligent rather than

instinctual. The distinction may sometimes be elusive, however, and Gibson (1990)

suggested that instinct and intelligence should be regarded, not as polar opposites, but

as the two ends of a continuum, which she calls "mental constructional ability."

Be that as it may, the insightful behavior shown by K�hler's (1917/1927) apes

implies constructive thought with an eye to the future solution of a problem, and

seems clearly more intelligent than instinctive. Even more strikingly, D�hl (1970)

showed that the chimpanzee Julia was able to look several steps ahead in a sequential

problem-solving task. She had to choose between two keys in a transparent box which

opened further boxes with keys, until she arrived at a final box that contained either

nothing or a food reward. Only by choosing the right keys at each point was she able

to obtain the reward. Julia learned to act, not by chance, but by determining the route

leading to reward before she chose the initial key. Since each trial involved a different

sequence, this learning could not be accomplished by simple chaining. Julia was able

to look as many as five steps ahead in pursuit of the final goal, an anticipatory skill

that some chess players might envy.

Chimpanzee tool cultures also suggest flexible forethought. For example, the

chimpanzees at Gombe manufactured pointed tools from sticks at one place to use

them later for termite fishing at another place that was out of sight (Goodall, 1986).

Since the stick is trimmed to give it a pointed end, Whiten and Byrne (1991) argue

that besides seeing the stick as a stick, the animal must also generate a meta-

representation of it as a termite probe.

But despite this evidence for chimpanzees' capacity to imagine the future,

K�hler (1917/1927) earlier suggested an important restriction: The anticipations do

not go beyond the context of the present. Sultan's construction of the future, which

enabled him to solve the problem and get the bananas, was bound by the context of

his present hunger. The same is true of the more recent examples: Julia's performance

was driven by her present desire for food reward, and the Gombe chimpanzees'

manufacture of sticks by their appetite for termites. K�hler viewed such anticipations

as essentially belonging to the present. The same theme has appeared in the writings

of other authors. For example, Donald (1991) recently wrote that ape's behavior,

"complex as it is, seems unreflective, concrete, and situation-bound" (p. 199).

Conversely, Stebbins (1982) and Eccles (1989) refer to "time-binding," meaning

simultaneous access to past and future, as uniquely human.

The Bischof-K�hler Hypothesis

Bischof (1978, 1985) and Bischof-K�hler (1985), based on K�hler's writings,

suggest a more explicit limit on the extent to which animals can represent the future.

Their hypothesis is that animals other than humans cannot anticipate future needs or

drive states, and are therefore bound to a present that is defined by their current

motivational state. We shall refer to this as the Bischof-K�hler hypothesis, noting that

the name acknowledges all three of its proponents, namely, Wolfgang K�hler, Norbert

Bischof, and Doris Bischof-K�hler.

The hypothesis still retains a measure of ambiguity, since there is no clear

definition of drive or need. It relies instead on commonsense notions. Bischof (1985)

illustrates with the example of a homeostatic drive, thirst. When an animal is thirsty, it

tries to find drink: Perception is focused on key stimuli, memory is searched, perhaps

a plan of action is worked out. To begin these procedures, however, the animal must

in fact be thirsty. Humans, by contrast, plan the future regardless of present need; a

full-bellied lion is no threat to nearby zebras, but a full-bellied human may be. We

humans anticipate future needs in multifarious ways, as when we buy food or other

provisions, install burglar alarms, or manufacture or purchase tools. Business is to a

great extent dependent on anticipation of our own and others' future needs.

The Bischof-K�hler hypothesis is consistent with the idea, developed earlier,

that nonhuman species may be unable to dissociate another mental state from their

present one. Future need anticipation therefore might be only a special case of

animals' general problem with simultaneously representing conflicting mental states.

Like three-year old children, they may be unable to imagine an earlier belief (or state

of knowledge, or drive, etc.) that is different from a present one, or to understand that

another individual holds a belief different from their own. This may apply to future

states as well as to past ones. That is, a satiated animal may be unable to understand

that it may later be hungry, and therefore unable to take steps to ensure that this future

hunger will be satisfied.

Griffin (1978) pointed 17 years ago to the importance of studying animals'

sense of a remote future, or in terms of the Bischof-K�hler hypothesis, to a future

beyond the present drive state, but to date little has been published on the topic. The

evidence that exists is anecdotal. Goodall (1986), for example, records the case of a

chimpanzee, Satan, who followed a female in estrus, then slept close beside her. This

suggests an activity designed for sexual gratification the next morning. Even if Satan

planned this, one can still argue that he was acting according to his present sexual

drive; that is, his plan did not extend into the "future" in K�hler's sense.

Bischof (1985) suggests that, in the course of evolution, there was a

progressively increasing gap between drive and action. Great apes display quite

extensive gaps; they can postpone the immediate enactment of their current drive, and

make plans to receive gratification at a later point in time. De Waal (1982), for

example, reported an incidence in the Arnhem Zoo in which the researchers hid

grapefruit in the chimpanzee enclosure by burying them in the sand. The chimpanzees

searched enthusiastically but apparently unsuccessfully, although several, including

Dandy, passed over the spot. Later in the afternoon, unnoticed by the others, Dandy

went straight to the spot, dug up the grapefruit, and enjoyed them without competition

from the others. Similar examples of tactical deception have been recorded by Byrne

and Whiten (1990). Such cases may demonstrate an impressive delay of gratification

to achieve greater gain, but they do not necessarily reflect mental travel beyond the

present drive state.

Chimpanzees carry stones over long distances to open nuts at a place where no

suitable stones can be found (Boesch & Boesch, 1984), but even this fairly extreme

example of forethought may still be controlled by a single drive state. "What is

imagined is the resonance of current needs in a future environment" (translated from

Bischof, 1985, p. 541).

Another anecdote that suggests an awareness of the future was recounted by

Byrne and Byrne (1988). A group of chimpanzees surrounded a cave in which a

leopard and its infant had hidden, and amid much excitement, and after several

unsuccessful attempts, one old male lunged into the cave and emerged with a very

small leopard cub. The group inspected the cub, bit it, and eventually killed it.

However they did not eat it, and some of them (not the killers) groomed its body. One

interpretation of this behavior is that the chimpanzees had acted to eliminate a future

predator. But is this what they had in mind when they began their siege? We do not

really know.

An anecdote recounted by de Waal (1982) is perhaps more compelling:

It is November and the days are becoming colder. On this particular morning

Franje collects all the straw from her cage (subgoal) and takes it with her under her

arm so that she can make a nice warm nest for herself outside (goal). Franje does not

do this in reaction to the cold, but before she can have actually felt how cold it is

outside. (p. 192)
However no further details are provided, and taken by itself it scarcely provides a

convincing refutation of the Bischof-K�hler hypothesis.

The widespread use of anecdotes in the 19th century led to wildly exaggerated

accounts of the mental capacities of nonhuman animals--Lindsay (1880), for example,

concluded that animals engage in criminal activities and commit suicide. There was

also the infamous case of Clever Hans, the horse that appeared to be able to perform

prodigious feats of arithmetic by tapping out the answers to questions put to him by

his owner. It transpired that the owner, unknownst even to himself, was giving subtle

signals to the horse that indicated when to stop tapping (Pfungst, 1911/1965). Claims

about animal intelligence came to be mistrusted, and a more sceptical attitude was

enshrined in Lloyd Morgan's canon and the principle of parsimony. However the

pendulum may have swung too far, making it virtually impossible even to obtain

evidence of future time travel. We may now be entering a phase of more balanced

enquiry. The anecdotal method has been successfully introduced for studying primate

deception (Whiten & Byrne, 1988; Byrne & Whiten, 1985, 1990, 1992), and a similar

survey of anecdotes relating to mental time travel into the future has also been

instigated (Suddendorf, 1994). This has yet to reveal convincing evidence of mental

travel into the future by nonhuman primates.

Of the 73 leading primatologists, comparative psychologists and

representatives of the ape-language projects initially surveyed, only five contributed

observations they thought might contradict the Bischof-K�hler hypothesis. None of

these observations described clear cases of future-need anticipation such as refinment

or continued carrying of tools after need satisfaction or, in the case of the ape-

language studies, the acquisition and appropriate use of words referring to the remote

future. Only two respondents, Tutin (see below) and Savage-Rumbaugh, stated that

they believed apes to be capable of anticipating the future beyond the current state of

needs/drives. Savage-Rumbaugh, however, appears to have changed her view, since

she has recently stressed the importance of the encoupling of current and future needs

in hominid evolution (Savage-Rumbaugh, 1994a).

While this survey confirms that the Bischof-K�hler hypothesis is consistent

with our current data, it still remains difficult to distinguish mental time travel from

instinctive behavior that may give the appearance of forethought. As de Waal (1982)

has pointed out, for example, adolescent humans often provoke and challenge their

parents in displays of independence, but are generally unaware of the true motive for

their actions, which are based on instinct rather than explicit mental constructions of

the future. De Waal suggests a similar explanation for the apparent strategic

intelligence displayed by an ex-alpha male, called Yeroen, at the Arnhem chimpanzee

colony. After losing his alpha status to Luit, Yeroen formed an alliance with a third

male Nikkie, a strategy that eventually brought him back to power. The strategy was

at first unsuccessful, and took months to pay off. Although noting that alternative

explanations are possible, de Waal suggests that the strategy may not have been

formulated with the future goal in mind. Even so, such anecdotes clearly raise the

possibility that chimpanzees have a greater capacity for forward planning than we are

yet willing to grant them.

Similar arguments may apply to the acquisition of mental maps for future use.

Chimpanzees and gorillas seem to acquire an extensive knowledge of territory,

allowing them later to take the shortest route to trees when they fruit, or to stones for

opening nuts (C.E.G. Tutin, record #14 in Suddendorf, 1994; Boesch & Boesch,

1984). Whether this knowledge is acquired intentionally, having in mind its

usefulness for future needs, is questionable. Spatial knowledge seems to be acquired

implicitly rather than explicitly, and may be a general adaptive mechanism that

requires no explicit reference to the future.

Evolutionary Considerations

There must be some question as to why it might be adaptive to travel mentally

into the past when phylogenetically older forms of memory already allow for learning

from a single event. Part of the answer may lie in the nature of the information

extracted. Sherry and Schacter (1987) argue that the older form of memory

(procedural) is essentially concerned with extracting invariances from stimulus events,

as in pattern recognition, whereas the newer form is concerned with preserving the

individuality of events. Since these characteristics are mutually incompatible, the later

form of memory evolved as a separate system. While this distinction may capture the

difference between nondeclarative and declarative memories, however, it does not

seem to capture that between the two varieties of declarative memory, namely,

semantic and episodic. Semantic memories themselves may vary considerably in

individuality; knowing that Canberra is the capital of Australia, for example, is more

specific than knowing what a capital is. Even more individual, however, is

remembering precisely when and how we learned that Canberra is the capital of

Australia. (Some of our readers may have learned it just then).

The ability to travel mentally back in time may confer the added advantage of

allowing events to be repeated, mentally if not physically, so that we can reflect on

them, draw more general or abstract conclusions from them, and so on. In that sense,

episodic memory may contribute to the elaboration of semantic memory. On these

grounds, some have argued that episodic memory may have preceded semantic

memory in hominid evolution (e.g., Donald, 1991; Seamon, 1984). However since

other species seem to be capable of at least a primitive form of semantic memory, we

agree with Tulving (1983, 1984, 1985) that episodic memory emerged later, but then

allowed the semantic memory system to develop more fully. Kinsbourne and Wood

(1975) have shown that the absence of episodic memory slows the acquisition of new


This relationship is also observed in human development, and we suggest that

again semantic memory preceeds episodic memory. The Taylor et al. studies (1994,

see above) show that children between four and five years of age begin to remember

learning events, and in so doing gradually overcome so-called source amnesia. This

age period can therefore be viewed as containing the onset of semantic learning based

on episodic memory. That is, only by this age can children travel mentally back to the

source of their knowledge and, for example, assess the accuracy and reliability of the

source or whether there might other things to be learned from the event. With mental

access to the learning event children can truly become generative in Corballis' (1991)

sense, because knowledge can be flexibly transferred across different domains. This is

supported by the recent finding that when false-belief tasks are passed, and thus

dissociation is evident, children generate significantly more, and more diverse,

answers to simple problems (Suddendorf & Fletcher-Flinn, 1996).

Although the ability to build up semantic memory increases the fitness of the

organism, we doubt that this fully explains the evolution of mental time travel. Rather,

the precursors of mental time travel, such as the ability to attribute mental states to

others, may have evolved as a result of the pressures of an increasingly complex social

structure. This underlies the theory of so-called "Machiavellian intelligence" (Byrne &

Whiten, 1988; Humphrey, 1976, 1986; Jolly, 1966); at some point in primate

evolution, there was a selective pressure for the ability to read the minds of other

individuals, since this allowed for better planning, cooperation, imitation, and

teaching--and, no doubt, deception. Humphrey (1986) argues that the human desire

for varied experience emerged because it allowed individuals to understand others; in

a sense, psychology was born. Self-knowledge might then have been an exaptation

derived from the ability to know others. As support for this, it has been noted that

chimpanzees reared in social isolation seem unable to recognize themselves in a

mirror (Gallup, McClure, Hill, & Bundy, 1971).

These considerations suggest that the real importance of mental time travel

applies to travel into the future rather than into the past; that is, we predominantly

stand in the present facing the future rather than looking back at the past. This

assertion is supported by the finding that "children can judge the forward order of

parts of the day, days of the week, and months of the year at earlier ages than they can

mentally move backwards through the sequences" (Friedman, 1992, p.173). This may

help explain why we are in fact such poor witnesses. That is, the constructive element

in episodic recall is adaptive in that it underlies our ability to imagine possible

scenarios rather than actual ones, but it may be rather maladaptive with respect to

reconstruction of the actual past. If it were important to remember the past in faithful

detail, then we might have expected a more efficient system to have evolved. Instead,

we bolster our faulty memories with external storage systems, such as drawings,

books, tapes, films, and computer disks, leaving our minds ever freer to create

scenarios for the future (not to mention fantasies about the past).

The ability to represent possible future events has clear advantages over the

older systems for generating anticipatory behavior, namely, instinct and learning. The

flexibility of the newer system allows one to consider different options, whereas

inherited instincts or insight-free acquisition of response patterns are effectively fixed

by the motivational state of the organism and by environmental contingencies.

Through the combining of different options, we can generate scenarios that are highly

specific, and that are novel; we can plan to do things we have never done before. The

future exerts so obvious an influence over our thoughts and actions, and indeed over

the shaping of society itself, that it needs no further elaboration here.

In recent years motivation theorists have come to appreciate that human

behavior is not governed merely by internal drives, habits, and external stimuli, but

depends very largely on anticipatory cognition. Bandura (1991) writes that "even in

the so-called biological motivators, human behavior is extensively activated and

regulated by anticipatory and generative cognitive mechanisms rather than simply

impelled by biological urges" (p. 70). This is not to say that humans have overcome

their biological needs; rather, they have the capacity to integrate the enactment of

present and future drives in a complex set of action plans directed at a variety of goals.

Only through considering the cognitive component, and the importance of mental time

travel, can we begin to explain the evolution of human volition, including such

biologically paradoxical phenomena as celibacy or hunger strikes.

The self-regulation required for the management of our motivation appears to

begin with the emergence of mental time travel, that is at around age 4 (Perner, 1991).

Because of the limited scope of this paper we refer the reader to the work of Kuhl

(e.g., Kuhl & Kraska 1989) for an excellent analysis of the development of meta-

volition and to Frankfurt (1988) for a philosophical discussion of the logic behind this

issue. That meta-motivation is vital for human culture, however, should be clear

without further elaboration.

When Did Mental Time Travel Evolve?

We suggested earlier that a critical ingredient of mental time travel is

dissociation, or the ability to maintain different mental states simultaneously. Savage-

Rumbaugh (1994a) has proposed the intriguing hypothesis that this may have arisen

as a consequence of bipedal locomotion and the ensuing problem of transporting

infants. The precursors of the hominoids moved primarily by brachiation--swinging

from branch to branch--as gibbons and siamangs do today. Infants were transported

simply by clinging, and the mother could assist by simply raising her hindlegs to

provide extra support. With deforestation during the Miocene, it was necessary to

develop alternative methods of locomotion across the savanna, between forest

patches. Chimpanzees and gorillas solved this problem by knuckle-walking, which

allowed the infant to cling to the mother's back2.

However the hominids, for whatever reason, adopted a bipedal mode of

locomotion, which posed a problem in the transportation of infants. It was no longer

sufficient to assume that the infant would simply cling, and greater demands were

placed on the mother--and perhaps the father as well--to ensure that the infant was

supported and monitored. Infants would be put down while sleeping, but it would be

important to remember them, and pick them up before moving on. Human infants are

held in front of the parent, allowing a more direct monitoring of their expressions,

direction of gaze, and attentional fixations. In short, it may have proven adaptive for

the parent to be able to take the perspective of the infant, mentally as well as


The requirement to monitor the presence and needs of an infant may have led

to an expansion of the ability to keep several things in mind. Savage-Rumbaugh

suggests that this also enabled hominids to carry tools and weapons that were related

not to current needs, but to contingencies that might arise, such as unexpected attacks,

or terrains unlike those encountered before. It may well have been such considerations

that eventually permitted the migration of Homo erectus from Africa to various parts

of the Old World. This is generally considered to have begun from about 1.6 million

years ago, although recent dating of fossils from Java suggest that some migration

may have occurred some 1.8 million years ago, before any known evidence of bifacial

tools (Swisher, Curtis, Jacob, Getty, Suprijo, & Widiasmoro, 1994). These migrations

took H. erectus into diverse environments with differing climates, suggesting a facility

for rapid adaptation. Instead of slow morphological adaptations, such as changes in

size or the growth of fur, these early hominids must have been able to construct

ecological niches in conditions that originally could not have met human

requirements. So began the human propensity to shape virtually any terrestrial

environment to our own ends.

It is sometimes suggested that the stone tools of the so-called Oldowan culture,

dating from some 1.6 to 2.4 million years ago, provide the earliest evidence for

deliberate planning for the future. These tools are generally associated with Homo

habilis, regarded as the first hominid to show an increase in cranial size beyond that of

an ape. While there has been considerable emphasis in the past on the importance of

tools in early hominid evolution, recent evidence has suggested a reappraisal. For

example, the creation of simple Oldowan tools appears to be within the competence of

modern chimpanzees (Toth et al., 1993; Wynn & McGrew, 1989), and it has been

claimed that the tool culture of Tai chimpanzees, although not involving the making

of stone tools, represents a comparable stage of development (Boesch & Boesch,

1984). Moreover, while the production of an Oldowan tool may require some advance

mental picture of the finished product and the use to which it will be put, it is not

convincing evidence for mental time travel according to the Bischof-K�hler

hypothesis. Like Tai chimpanzees, H. habilis may have manufactured primitive stone

tools simply to satisfy a current need.

The more sophisticated Acheulian culture associated with H. erectus around

1.6 million years ago may provide more convincing evidence. For example, the

bifacial hand-ax involved symmetrical removal of flakes from a stone core to produce

a tool that was sharper and more pointed than the primitive Oldowan scrapers. This

more costly and time consuming procedure suggests that these tools were not intended

for one-time use only, but were kept for future use. This implies that the manufacturer

was able to anticipate future needs, possibly extending beyond the present drive state

(Suddendorf, 1994); as Savage-Rumbaugh (1994a) puts it, the Acheulian hand ax

provides the first evidence of the "uncoupling" of present and future needs. We might

regard this as representing an intermediate stage of mental time travel, perhaps

roughly that of a four-year-old human child, in which the simulation of past and future

episodes was possible, but there was little development of abstract semantic concepts

and theories about the future.

With Homo sapiens neandertalensis, between 100,000 and 35,000 years ago,

we find the first evidence for burial and associated rituals. This perhaps signals a final

step in the freeing of mental time travel, to the point that it outstrips bodily time

travel, giving rise to that singularly unwelcome concept--death. Consequently,

personal identity through time must have existed in Neanderthals. Here too we see

evidence of the generative nature of time travel, in which scenarios are created for the

possibility of life after death. Religion was born.

As we have already intimated, the emergence of mental time travel may have

been dependent on increased encephalization, beginning with H. habilis and reaching

its peak some 300,000 years ago with Homo sapiens. Not every part of the brain

enlarged at the same rate, however. The limbic system, a prominent structure in most

mammalian brains, significantly reduced in relative size. Given its role in basic

motivation (drives, needs, and emotions), this might be taken as evidence that other

parts of the brain became increasingly important in driving behavior. This is not to say

that emotions are no longer an important part of the human condition - the limbic

system did increase in absolute size. With mental time travel, "cognition" challenged

"impulse" for the driver's seat, as it were. The neurological correlate appears to be the

disproportionate development of the prefrontal lobe, which is reciprocally connected

to the limbic region and to sensory association areas (Fuster, 1989). The prefrontal

cortex plays a vital role in subjective self-awareness (Freeman & Watts, 1942),

temporal organization of action (Fuster, 1989; Ingvar, 1985), and episodic memory

(Shimamura et al., 1990). Lesions to the prefrontal area may also lead to impaired

goal-directed behavior, lack of ambition, apathy, unawareness of behavioral

consequences, or what Ingvar (1985) refers to as a "lack of future".

Relation to Language

One characteristic of mental time travel that distinguishes it from instinct and

associative learning is its flexibility. That is, given a basic vocabulary of actors,

objects, and events, we can reconstruct unique episodes in the past, and create

scenarios to deal with unique contingencies in the future. This ability to generate an

infinite variety of combinations from a finite vocabulary is also what characterizes

human language, and sets it apart from the communication systems of all other species

(Chomsky, 1988). Generativity may not be unique to language, but may be an aspect

of thought that arose as a means of rapid adaptation to complex physical and social


Again it may have been the emergence of multiple monitoring that led to the

development of language from a relatively crude associative device that may be

within the competence of both chimpanzee and two-year-old child, to the

sophisticated generative, recursive system that every human over the age of about four

seems effortlessly to have acquired. The ability to create a sentence with an embedded

clause, such as this one, requires that one keep track of the overall structure while the

embedded clause is generated. That is, even at the level of word production, multiple

monitoring (and short-term memory) is required. But one must also keep track of

meaning--what it is one is trying to say.

True language may also require a dissociation between one's own thoughts and

the thoughts of those to whom we speak. Premack and Premack (1994) have

emphasized that human language requires a theory of mind; through language, we aim

not merely to change the behaviors of others, but to change their beliefs. This of

course requires that we have a theory of what others believe; that is, a theory of others'

minds. We attribute mental states to the people we talk to, but dissociate those states

from our own. We speak differently to an ignorant audience than to a knowledgeable

one, to an angry person than to a happy one. We have argued in this article that this

ability to dissociate is also involved in mental time travel.

Recursion itself depends on dissociation. For example, social behavior may be

governed by the knowledge that individual A knows something, or that A knows that

B knows something. Mental time travel may involve similar propositions: I am not

hungry now, but I know that I will be hungry soon; I am here today, but last week I

was in Wellington and went to the opera. These kinds of propositions are

characteristic of the sorts of things that we use language to express. Premack and

Premack (1994) suggest that the attributions involved in language may involve as

many as four levels of meta-representation: "A speaker believes that his listener

believes that he will tell the truth; further that the listener believes he believes that the

listener believes that he will tell the truth" (p. 105).

These considerations need not imply that mental time travel is dependent on

language. Intuitively, at least, we seem to be able to create or recreate scenarios that

rely on imagery rather than on language, and indeed it is not always easy to express in

words something that we have seen. This suggests that language and mental time

travel both exploit more general attributional, dissociative, and generative abilities.

Even so, language is in many ways ideally crafted to recount episodes and sequence

them into narratives (Corballis, 1994; Pinker & Bloom, 1990). Episodes are often

about who did what to whom, and when, and where, and why, and what happened

next. Although mental time travel and language may well have co-evolved to some

extent, we suggest that the true priority lay with mental time travel; that is, the ability

to generate mental experience probably preceded the ability to communicate it.

It is worth noting, however, that recent research on counting in chimpanzees

(e.g., Boysen & Berntson, 1995) demonstrated how symbolic systems can foster the

detachment from immediate impulses. Selection of one of two arrays with different

amounts of candy, resulted in the other, nonselected, array being received. Thus,

choosing the smaller array results in more obtained candy. The chimpanzees seemed

not to comprehend this simple, yet counterintuitive, rule and tended to choose the

larger array. However, when the actual candy was replaced by Arabic numerals, the

chimpanzees reliably selected the smaller number to obtain the larger reward.

Apparently, the symbolic system helped the chimpanzees to override their natural

impulse, or evaluative disposition (to select the larger amount of candy), and created

the space for applying what cognitvely was well understood. These results suggest

that symbolic representation might have paved the way for effective meta-motivation,

that is, the practical application of forethought to behavior. Language clearly was

important for the evolution of the fully-fledged mental time travel capacity.


We have argued that the ability to travel mentally in time constitutes a

discontinuity between humans and other animals. Current empirical data and

theoretical analyses from a wide range of research fields has been brought together in

support for our argument. We recognize, however, that the ideas we have developed in

this article might at times be no more than "just so" stories, in which it is assumed that

things simply had to be the way they are. Moreover, we have relied fairly extensively

on comparisons between apes and humans, on the grounds that chimpanzees, in

particular, are closest to humans in genetic makeup (e.g., Miyamoto, Slightom, &

Goodman, 1987). However the most recent common ancestor of humans and

chimpanzees probably existed some 5-7 million years ago, so considerable divergence

can be expected. Our hominid ancestors lived in very different environments, and

were subjected to very different selective pressures. Inevitably, then, there is a good

deal of pure speculation in any attempt to bridge the gap between ape and human, and

there may be important respects in which comparisons with other species may be

more relevant.

However, it is important to conduct meta-analyses that integrate up-to-date

data from diverse and fast paced fields. This is particularly critical if the analysis can

shed new light on the data by providing a novel perspective. We believe that the

obviously important, yet largely overlooked, human ability to travel mentally in time,

constitutes such a perspective. Our analysis challenges experimenters to provide

evidence for mental time travel in other species and to study its development in

children (a more promising area of research). Anecdotes too should be subjected to

careful scrutiny to ensure that they meet appropriate criteria. Demonstrations of

putative time travel must not merely reflect habits, or instinctive behaviours, or

behaviors based on semantic knowledge or generalized rules. The essence of mental

time travel lies in its particularity, and this in turn implies the ability to generate

unique representations from combinations of elements. We believe that the

importance of mental time travel as a prime mover in human cognitive evolution has

not been adequately recognized. It may hold the key to the evolution of such

characteristically human phenomena as agriculture, morality, philosophy, science,

technology, and trade.

Author Note
Thomas Suddendorf, Department of Psychology; Michael C. Corballis,

Department of Psychology.

This monograph draws in part on the first author's Masters thesis "Discovery

of the Fourth Dimension" (1994). We thank Richard W. Byrne for comments on an

earlier draft of the manuscript.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Thomas

Suddendorf, Department of Psychology, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019,

Auckland, New Zealand. Electronic mail may be sent to:


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1. H.M.'s amnesia is based not merely on failure of storage or retrieval, but also on an

inability to actively reconstruct the past. He can recall some episodes from about 16

years prior to the operation that led to his amnesia, but these are recounted in highly

stereotyped fashion. He is apparently unable to "update" these memories (Ogden &

Corkin 1991), but recalls them, like semantic knowledge, without further


2. It is usually assumed that the common ancestor of chimpanzee, gorilla, and human

was also a knuckle-walker. Controversially, Savage-Rumbaugh (1994a) suggests that

the common ancestor depended primarily on brachiation, and that gorillas and

chimpanzees evolved knuckle-walking independently--a case of convergent evolution.

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