Mental simulation and meaning in life

Adam Waytz, Hal E. Hershfield, Diana I. Tamir

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

47 Scopus citations

Abstract

Mental simulation, the process of self-projection into alternate temporal, spatial, social, or hypothetical realities is a distinctively human capacity. Numerous lines of research also suggest that the tendency for mental simulation is associated with enhanced meaning. The present research tests this association specifically examining the relationship between two forms of simulation (temporal and spatial) and meaning in life. Study 1 uses neuroimaging to demonstrate that enhanced connectivity in the medial temporal lobe network, a subnetwork of the brain's default network implicated in prospection and retrospection, correlates with self-reported meaning in life. Study 2 demonstrates that experimentally inducing people to think about the past or future versus the present enhances self-reported meaning in life, through the generation of more meaningful events. Study 3 demonstrates that experimentally inducing people to think specifically versus generally about the past or future enhances self-reported meaning in life. Study 4 turns to spatial simulation to demonstrate that experimentally inducing people to think specifically about an alternate spatial location (from the present location) increases meaning derived from this simulation compared to thinking generally about another location or specifically about one's present location. Study 5 demonstrates that experimentally inducing people to think about an alternate spatial location versus one's present location enhances meaning in life, through meaning derived from this simulation. Study 6 demonstrates that simply asking people to imagine completing a measure of meaning in life in an alternate location compared with asking them to do so in their present location enhances reports of meaning. This research sheds light on an important determinant of meaning in life and suggests that undirected mental simulation benefits psychological well-being.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)336-355
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of personality and social psychology
Volume108
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Psychology
  • Sociology and Political Science

Keywords

  • Default network
  • Meaning in life
  • Mental simulation
  • Mental time travel
  • Self-projection

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