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Anxiety and mental time travel

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Adam Bulley
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Humans have evolved mechanisms for the detection and management of possible threats in order to abate their negative consequences for fitness. Internally generated (‘detached’) cognition may have evolved in part because of its contributions to this broad function, but important questions remain about its role in threat management. In this article, we there- fore present a taxonomy of threat-related internally generated cognition comprising episo- dic and semantic formats of memory and prospection. We address the proximate mechanisms of each of the capacities in this taxonomy, and discuss their respective contri- butions to adaptive threat management in humans. For instance, mental time travel empowers people to contemplate and learn from threats experienced long ago, as well as to plan for dangers that might arise in the distant future. However, despite their func- tional benefits, these thought processes are also central to contemporary anxiety disorders and may be a potent source of distress.
In this paper, we examine the relationship between episodic foresight and anxiety from an evolutionary perspective, proposing that together they confer an advantage for modifying present moment decision-making and behaviour in the light of potential future threats to fitness. We review the body of literature on the role of episodic foresight in anxiety, from both proximate and ultimate perspectives. We propose that anxious feelings associated with episodic simulation of possible threat-related future events serve to imbue these simulations with motivational currency. Episodic and semantic details of a future threat may be insufficient for motivating its avoidance, but anxiety associated with a simulation can provoke adaptive threat management. As such, we detail how anxiety triggered by a self-generated, threat-related future simulation prepares the individual to manage that threat (in terms of its likelihood and/or consequences) over greater temporal distances than observed in other animals. We then outline how anxiety subtypes may represent specific mechanisms for predicting and managing particular classes of fitness threats. This approach offers an inroad for understanding the nature of characteristic future thinking patterns in anxiety disorders and serves to illustrate the adaptive function of the mechanism from which clinical anxiety deviates. Episodic foresight can elicit anxiety even when there are no immediate environmental cues of fitness threats. Anxiety may be a mechanism by which simulations of future events are imbued with motivational currency, to ensure the management of potential future threats to fitness. Subtypes of anxiety disorders may reflect different mechanisms for effectively managing certain potential future threats to fitness. Understanding the utility of episodic foresight in anxiety disorders may lead to new insights into diagnosis and treatment. © 2015 The British Psychological Society.