Neural correlates of event clusters in past and future thoughts: How the brain integrates specific episodes with autobiographical knowledge

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When remembering the past or envisioning the future, events often come to mind in organized sequences or stories rather than in isolation from one another. The aim of the present fMRI study was to investigate the neural correlates of such event clusters. Participants were asked to consider pairs of specific past or future events: in one condition, the two events were part of the same event cluster (i.e., they were thematically and/or causally related to each other), whereas in another condition the two events only shared a surface feature (i.e., their location); a third condition was also included, in which the two events were unrelated to each other. The results showed that the processing of past and future events that were part of a same cluster was associated with higher activation in the medial prefrontal cortex (PFC), rostrolateral PFC, and left lateral temporal and parietal regions, compared to the two other conditions. Furthermore, functional connectivity analyses revealed an increased coupling between these cortical regions. These findings suggest that largely similar processes are involved in organizing events in clusters for the past and the future. The medial and rostrolateral PFC might play a pivotal role in mediating the integration of specific events with conceptual autobiographical knowledge ‘stored’ in more posterior regions. Through this integrative process, this set of brain regions might contribute to the attribution of an overarching meaning to representations of specific past and future events, by contextualizing them with respect to personal goals and general knowledge about one's life story.

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