When I speak to groups, or in workshops, this is how I usually introduce myself. At first, I get that look, like, oh, no, here we go…
But then, I invite people to imagine that we are all time travelers.
Sometimes I still get the eye-roll. Until I pose this question: If you could go anywhere—any when—where would you go, who would you meet, what would you do or say, and why?
That’s when that beautiful human quality of imagining begins. That’s when time travel becomes possible.
And people’s answers have surprised me. One young man, Kyle, wanted to go back to the 1990s, to his parents’ wedding. He would see his dad as a young man—not much older than Kyle is today—about to take that all-important step that would eventually lead to . . . Kyle. He could spy on his grandparents when they, too, were much younger, and see family aunts, uncles and cousins as they were then—with all the hopes, dreams, worries and joys of their earlier lives.
“But there’s one problem,” Kyle explained to me. “I look just like my dad.”
Whoa! This opened up what we might call a knotty “Back to the Future” scenario. What if, somehow, in this spacetime zone, Kyle’s father was missing at the critical moment the wedding was about to begin. It could arrange from the innocuous—he desperately needed to run to the restroom—to cold feet—he desperately just needed to run. What if, in a moment when all hell was breaking loose, someone “found” him “hiding” behind a column in the church . . . because, of course, Kyle would not want anyone to see him . . . and brought Kyle to the altar thinking it was his dad (because, of course, in this spacetime, there would not yet be any Kyle), and he would be made to marry his own mom?
Thorny paradox. And time travel would be full of these.
Just examining that theoretical time travel scenario gets the conversation going. Suddenly, everyone has a time slip to explore.
Time Travel Fail
But there’s another explanation for how we are all time travelers. Mentally, we are always either reviewing the past, or anticipating the future. In fact, our brains are set up this way. Brain imaging research by Marcus Raichle, M.D. a pioneering neurologist at Washington University in St. Louis, has shown that our resting brain, paradoxically, is busier than our brain when we are actively thinking or focusing on a task. In brain scans, the neural network known as the default mode network (DMN), appeared quite active.
Randy Buckner, a neuroscientist who worked in Dr. Raichle’s lab, notes about this groundbreaking finding that, “The considerable irony was that when we stopped instructing people to do tasks in the scanner, we saw that the human brain imagines, constructs, and explores mentally.”
So the imagination is hard at work even when we are most at rest. As for why it’s called “default”? It seems that busy “resting” mode is cooked into the brain’s wiring.
Knowing that our resting brain is either planning for the future or regretting the past, I just went through what I’ll call a “time travel fail.” This occurred on a day where I had a lot of things planned—someone was supposed to be here first thing to replace my car windshield after a ding on the road turned into a crack; a tasting at the hotel where my daughter’s getting married later in the year; and we had tickets to go see “Six: The Musical,” that evening.
Except for the car windshield replacement (that was downright annoying), I had been looking forward to these for many months. The anticipation in-and-of itself was a form of mental time travel. It was so real to me, that I could taste the food, and see the colorful floral arrangements in the mock up from the florist.
Yet, when the day arrived. None of this happened. None. Of. It.
The replacement windshield got left out of the truck. My daughter and her fiancé enjoyed the tasting—a last-minute “day date” for them—without me. And the show—well, suffice it to say that if I believed that the Almighty had a hand in this, I couldn’t have imagined a greater deluge and flash flooding event that made the roads treacherous—just before showtime.
So for all my mental time travel created an experience of this amazing day in advance, it was not at all as I had imagined.
Disappointed? Of course. But in processing this in the warmth and safety of my house while the rain beat down and turned my yard into a river, I could derive pleasure from knowing that I had an anticipatory experience of this future thanks to the magic of my imagination.
I hadn’t made it to the future I envisioned. But I’d envisioned a beautiful future that became part of my experience, nonetheless.
And that brings me joy.