Mental Time Travel and language evolution: a narrative account of the origins of human communication

F. Ferretti, I. Adornetti, A. Chiera, S. Nicchiarelli, R. Magni, G. Valeri, A. Marini

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In this paper we propose a narrative account for the origin of language. Such a proposal is based on two assumptions. The first is conceptual and concerns the idea that the distinctive feature of human language (what sets it apart from other forms of animal communication) has to be traced to its inherently narrative character. The second assumption is methodological and connected to the idea that the study of language origin is closely related to the analysis of the cognitive systems at the base of narrative. Research on narrative abilities of subjects with Autism Spectrum Disorder has shown that storytelling requires the capability to link events causally connected to one another, and especially events which are remote from one another on the temporal axis of a story. Based on this research, we hypothesize that an important cognitive device involved in narrative is Mental Time Travel (MTT), that is, the system that allows humans to project themselves into the past and future. We show that such a system is present (to a greater or lesser extent) even in non-human animals. By virtue of this, we argue that MTT is independent of language and that it may be considered a cognitive precursor for the origin of language. Specifically, we propose that MTT allowed our ancestors to develop a form of pantomimic communication that might be considered as the foundation of the narrative origin of language.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)105-118
Number of pages14
JournalLanguage Sciences
Publication statusPublished - Sep 1 2017


  • Autism
  • Global coherence
  • Mental Time Travel
  • Narrative
  • Origin of language
  • Pantomime

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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