Personal identity and mental time travel


Mental time travel
Personal identity

How to Cite

Personal identity and mental time travel. (2024). Philosophy and the Mind Sciences, 5.


This paper examines the role of episodic memory, and the broader notion of “mental time travel” (MTT), in constituting personal identity. After arguing that the construal of memory’s role in personal identity found in traditional psychological continuity theories of personal identity is both unrealistic and unsatisfying, the paper endeavors to provide a better account. This begins with recent work in the science and philosophy of memory that sees episodic memory as part of a broader faculty for MTT (which also involves imagination and counterfactual thought). Some of the basic ideas expressed in this work are developed into an account of the connection between MTT with “strong identification” and personal identity. According to this alternative approach, we regularly “borrow affect” from our pasts and futures through forms of remembering, imagining, and counterfactual thinking that involve a particular form of identification with our past and future selves. This activity generates a strong diachronic experience of self, which contributes in important ways to diachronic personal identity. The sense of self generated through MTT is, however, only one piece of a more comprehensive account of personal identity. The paper concludes by describing its place in the larger picture.



Addis, D. R., Sacchetti, D. C., Ally, B. A., Budson, A. E., & Schacter, D. L. (2009). Episodic simulation of future events is impaired in mild Alzheimer’s disease. Neuropsychologia, 47(12), 2660–2671.

Addis, D. R., & Schacter, D. L. (2008). Constructive episodic simulation: Temporal distance and detail of past and future events modulate hippocampal engagement. Hippocampus, 18(2), 227–237.

Addis, D. R., Wong, A. T., & Schacter, D. L. (2007). Remembering the past and imagining the future: Common and distinct neural substrates during event construction and elaboration. Neuropsychologia, 45(7), 1363–1377.

Bartlett, F. C., & Burt, C. (1933). Remembering: a study in experimental and social psychology. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 3(2), 187–192.

Craver, C. F. (2020). Remembering: Epistemic and empirical. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 11(2), 261–281.

De Brigard, F. (2014). Is memory for remembering? Recollection as a form of episodic hypothetical thinking. Synthese, 191(2), 155–185.

Intraub, H., & Hoffman, J. E. (1992). Reading and visual memory: Remembering scenes that were never seen. The American Journal of Psychology, 105(1), 101.

Kind, A. (2016). Imagining under constraints. In A. Kind & P. Kung (Eds.), Knowledge Through Imagination (pp. 145–159). Oxford University Press.

Lewis, D. (1976). Survival and identity. In A. O. Rorty (Ed.), The identities of persons (pp. 17–40). University of California Press.

Lindsay, D. S., Hagen, L., Read, J. D., Wade, K. A., & Garry, M. (2004). True photographs and false memories. Psychological Science, 15(3), 149–154.

Locke, J. (1975). An essay concerning human understanding (P. H. Nidditch, Ed.). Clarendon Press.

Loftus, E. F. (1979). Eyewitness testimony. Harvard University Press.

Martin, C. B., & Deutscher, M. (1966). Remembering. The Philosophical Review, 75(2), 161.

Michaelian, K. (2016). Mental time travel: Episodic memory and our knowledge of the personal past. MIT Press.

Neisser, U. (1981). John dean’s memory: A case study. Cognition, 9(1), 1–22.

Nelson, K., & Fivush, R. (2020). The development of autobiographical memory, autobiographical narratives, and autobio- graphical consciousness. Psychological Reports, 123(1), 71–96.

Neter, J., & Waksberg, J. (1964). A study of response errors in expenditures data from household interviews. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 59(305), 18–55.

Nigro, G., & Neisser, U. (1983). Point of view in personal memories. Cognitive Psychology, 15(4), 467–482.

Parfit, D. (1986). Reasons and persons. Oxford University Press.

Payne, D. G., Elie, C. J., Blackwell, J. M., & Neuschatz, J. S. (1996). Memory illusions: Recalling, recognizing, and recollecting events that never occurred. Journal of Memory and Language, 35(2), 261–285.

Perry, J. (1976). The importance of being identical. In A. O. Rorty (Ed.), The identities of persons (pp. 67–90). University of California Press.

Reid, T. (1975). Of mr. Locke’s account of our personal identity. In J. Perry (Ed.), Personal identity (pp. 113–118). University of California Press.

Robins, S. K. (2016). Misremembering. Philosophical Psychology, 29(3), 432–447.

Roediger, H. L., & McDermott, K. B. (1995). Creating false memories: Remembering words not presented in lists. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 21(4), 803–814.

Roediger, H. L., Meade, M. L., & Bergman, E. T. (2001). Social contagion of memory. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 8(2), 365–371.

Schacter, D. L., & Addis, D. R. (2007). The cognitive neuroscience of constructive memory: Remembering the past and imagining the future. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 362(1481), 773–786.

Schacter, D. L., Coyle, J. T., Harvard Center for the Study of Mind, Brain, & Behavior. (1995). Memory distortion: How minds, brains, and societies reconstruct the past. Harvard University Press.

Schechtman, M. (2014). Staying alive: Personal identity, practical concerns, and the unity of a life. Oxford University Press.

Schechtman, M. (2022). In a sentimental mood: Memories as treasured objects. Acta Scientiarum. Human and Social Sciences, 43(3), e61025.

Shoemaker, S. (1963). Self-Knowledge and self-identity. Philosophy, 39(149), 257–277.

Szpunar, K. K. (2010). Episodic future thought: An emerging concept. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5(2), 142–162.

Szpunar, K. K., Watson, J. M., & McDermott, K. B. (2007). Neural substrates of envisioning the future. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(2), 642–647.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Copyright (c) 2024 Marya Schechtman