Language, memory, and mental time travel: An evolutionary perspective

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Language could not exist without memory, in all its forms: working memory for sequential production and understanding, implicit memory for grammatical rules, semantic memory for knowledge, and episodic memory for communicating personal experience. Episodic memory is part of a more general capacity for mental travel both forward and backward in time, and extending even into fantasy and stories. I argue that the generativity of mental time travel underlies the generativity of language itself, and could be the basis of what Chomsky calls I-language, or universal grammar (UG), a capacity for recursive thought independent of communicative language itself. Whereas Chomsky proposed that I-language evolved in a single step well after the emergence of Homo sapiens, I suggest that generative imagination, extended in space and time, has a long evolutionary history, and that it was the capacity to share internal thoughts, rather than the nature of the thoughts themselves, that more clearly distinguishes humans from other species.




Corballis, M. C. (2019). Language, memory, and mental time travel: An evolutionary perspective. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 13.

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