Daydreaming is a critical component of conscious experience. The mind can perform mental time travel – it occasionally strays from the present moment, to recollect an experience from the near or distant past, or to imagine an event that has not yet taken place. We know that thinking about the future is dependant on memory, because patients with amnesia cannot imagine new experiences. It involves piecing together fragments of past experiences to generate a plausible simulation of what might happen. This may have been an important development in human evolution, as it enables us anticipate a likely outcome and to plan the best possible course of action.
Space and time are intimately linked in the mind, and this is reflected in our metaphors. We often say that we are thinking back to a past event, or looking forward to one that will take place in the future. But the mind and body are also closely linked: think about a past experience, and you might find yourself moving backwards. A new study suggests that this can be reversed, by showing that apparent motion can influence the direction of the mind’s wanderings. Thus, moving backwards could evoke long lost memories, while moving forward might make you think about the future.