Multi-voxel pattern classification differentiates personally experienced event memories from secondhand event knowledge

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Studies of autobiographical memory retrieval often use photographs to probe participants' memories for past events. Recent neuroimaging work has shown that viewing photographs depicting events from one's own life evokes a characteristic pattern of brain activity across a network of frontal, parietal, and medial temporal lobe regions that can be readily distinguished from brain activity associated with viewing photographs from someone else's life (Rissman, Chow, Reggente, and Wagner, 2016). However, it is unclear whether the neural signatures associated with remembering a personally experienced event are distinct from those associated with recognizing previously encountered photographs of an event. The present experiment used a novel functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) paradigm to investigate putative differences in brain activity patterns associated with these distinct expressions of memory retrieval. Eighteen participants wore necklace-mounted digital cameras to capture events from their everyday lives over the course of three weeks. One week later, participants underwent fMRI scanning, where on each trial they viewed a sequence of photographs depicting either an event from their own life or from another participant's life and judged their memory for this event. Importantly, half of the trials featured photographic sequences that had been shown to participants during a laboratory session administered the previous day. Multi-voxel pattern analyses assessed the sensitivity of two brain networks of interest—as identified by a meta-analysis of prior autobiographical and laboratory-based memory retrieval studies—to the original source of the photographs (own life or other's life) and their experiential history as stimuli (previewed or non-previewed). The classification analyses revealed a striking dissociation: activity patterns within the autobiographical memory network were significantly more diagnostic than those within the laboratory-based network as to whether photographs depicted one's own personal experience (regardless of whether they had been previously seen), whereas activity patterns within the laboratory-based memory network were significantly more diagnostic than those within the autobiographical memory network as to whether photographs had been previewed (regardless of whether they were from the participant's own life). These results, also apparent in whole-brain searchlight classifications, provide evidence for dissociable patterns of activation across two putative memory networks as a function of whether real-world photographs trigger the retrieval of firsthand experiences or secondhand event knowledge.

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