“Time Travel in the Brain”

Natalie Biderman and Daphna Shohamy wrote this science article for kids. Here’s the abstract:

Do you believe in time travel? Every time we remember something from the past or imagine something that will happen in the future, we engage in mental time travel. Scientists discovered that, whether we mentally travel back into the past or forward into the future, some of the same brain regions are activated. One of those regions is the hippocampus, a brain structure famous for its role in building long-term memories. Damage to the hippocampus causes memory problems, but it also impairs the ability to imagine future experiences. This brain connection between remembering the past and thinking about the future suggests that memory, planning, and decision-making may be deeply related. The ability to form memories allows us to reminisce about the past. But maybe the ability to form memories also evolved to allow us to think about and plan for the future.

And here’s how the article begins:

Let us start with a riddle. Try to figure out how to throw a ping-pong ball so that it will go a short distance, come to a dead stop, and then reverse its direction. You cannot throw the ball such that it will curve back to you (like a frisbee), and the ball is not allowed to touch or be attached to any object. What can you do? The solution to this riddle is described in the footnote below. Yes, it is a simple solution. Do not worry if you did not figure it out immediately, many people do not. The interesting question is why. . . .

And they conclude:

When we think about memory, we usually think about the past. Indeed, for more than a century, memory researchers focused on how people and animals store and recall past experiences and which brain structures support those functions. More recent research suggests a different view of memory. Recent findings show that the hippocampus—a brain region responsible for memory—is active when people imagine future events. Additionally, in patients with amnesia, damage to the hippocampus impairs the ability to imagine the future. Moreover, when rats navigate their environments, neurons in the hippocampus “simulate” future paths that will enable them to get to a desired outcome. Together, these findings suggest that the hippocampus and its connections to other brain regions build upon past experiences to make predictions about future events. . . .

This is interesting, not just for kids. I’m posting it here because Natalie worked on it as a student in our Communicating Data and Statistics class. Previous final projects for that course include ShinyStan.