Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Mental Time Travel

Our species is most likely the only one on the planet capable of mental time travel (MTT). We have an unique ability to project ourselves into situations that we have previously experienced, or scenarios that have never happened. This skill is generated by our recently developed neo-cortex. It has a huge adaptive advantage, allowing our species to conquer every corner of the globe like no other form of life thus far. This traveling self brought with it the possibility of questioning as one could reflect on the past or ponder the future and try to predict it through inquiry and testing. Our inquisitive nature stems from the capacity to see ourselves outside of the box of the immediate present. Instinct for the first time could be analyzed and modified, causing us to go from adapting to the environment to constructing it to adapt to us. This transition from our ecological niche as hunter-gatherers on the African savanna, to our now global domination of virtually all resources has given us much power. But it has also caused us to lose our connection to the rhythm of nature and feel divorced from our surroundings. Our ability to travel through time reveals our finiteness and vulnerability, leading to crippling anxiety.
Mental time travel is a paradoxical evolutionary trait because it poses a double edge sword to us. On the one hand we have this skill to help us take control of the world’s resources. But, on the other hand this awareness of personal mortality brought along with it a ton of emotional baggage, culminating in death denying cultural world views. What can be the advantage of not focusing on survival, in order to create metaphysical structures not related to nutrition or reproduction? It seems detrimental to have life forms aware of their own existential situation. Why would evolution favor groups creating these cultures, over ones that would not need them for survival? It seems that the group lacking the ability of mental time travel would invade and defeat the crowd of those who spent their time dealing with the abstract. MTT although promising at first, causes much more problems then answers. Why was it that only humans inherited this unique trait?