How have humans shaped and dominated the environments in which we live, while our animal cousins have not?
There are many explanations for the "success" of humans, including
cognitive abilities, including problem-solving and the use of tools
language, which allows for sophisticated communication
social organisation, which has powered out ability to cooperate
However, while these characteristics have provided the foundation for humans to expand their influence, there is one uniquely human quality that is coming to the fore as technological development accelerates: Mental time travel.
In short, mental time travel is the ability to remember the past, imagine the future and make decisions consciously in the present. Moreover, it is the ability to choose which of these to engage in at any particular time.
Take, for example, choosing a holiday. This is a task that will often require imagination (if you haven't been there before) as well as experience of previous holidays. As you browse locations, they remind you of other places you've been, and prompt you to think of yourself in that location, skiing down the mountain, lying on the beach or wandering around a museum. It may also prompt you to avoid certain situations, such as long layovers with young children, or a lousy hotel experience. Your memory fuels your imagination, and you can make decisions now that will produce some desired outcomes in the future, hopefully a memorable holiday.
Compare this to the actions of a squirrel. That squirrels know to start hiding nuts in the autumn, and then actually find them again in the following weeks and months may seem an impressive display of forward thinking. Yet even this formidable ability has failed to propel the squirrel to world domination.
This is because the adorable rodent relies on instinct. She doesn't cast her mind back to previous winters of hunger when she failed to hide enough nuts, or they were stolen by her neighbours, or other years when she had more than she knew what to do with. She simply satisfies a desire, from where she knows not, to bury nuts.
So how can you move beyond instinct and cultivate this capacity for mental time travel?
Great decisions are made in the present about the future and grounded in the past. You need to have a good handle on all of them.
The past provides the lessons for the future. Yet we too often make the same mistakes not just twice, but repeatedly. The key to optimising the wisdom of your previous experience is to actively reflect on it. The most obvious way is through keeping a journal, but even just thinking through events and asking why certain things happened, and how they could have been different if you'd have taken a different approach, can be useful. It's also important to to keep abreast of what's happening around you through horizon scanning. This just means keeping up to date with developments in areas you're interested in, so that your understanding of a situation doesn't calcify.
Imagination is the gateway to more prosperous futures. There are a number of ways to stimulate the imagination, but one useful exercise is visualisation. This means casting your mind to a point in the future and thinking deeply about what that looks like. The details are important. The time needs to be specific, and the visualisation needs to incorporate all the senses and, in particular, how you feel. You need to really experience the future to understand its qualities. You should write down the experience so you can assess it. The greater variety of different futures you can visualise, the greater confidence you can have in the decisions you make in the present.
The present is where the rubber meets the road. It's where you make the decisions that will influence your future, yet it's so easy to make poor decisions because of bias and the distractions of the world we live in. Practicing mindfulness is one way to insulate yourself from all this noise – it's how you can focus clearly on what has happened in the past and what you want to achieve. The present is also when you reap the rewards of previous decisions, and when you can appreciate what you have.
By building your mental time travel capabilities, you can become wiser about the past, better enjoy the present and exercise greater control over your future.