The spatiotemporal dynamics of autobiographical memory: neural correlates of recall, emotional intensity, and reliving

Cereb Cortex. 2008 Jan;18(1):217-29. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhm048. Epub 2007 Jun 4.


We sought to map the time course of autobiographical memory retrieval, including brain regions that mediate phenomenological experiences of reliving and emotional intensity. Participants recalled personal memories to auditory word cues during event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Participants pressed a button when a memory was accessed, maintained and elaborated the memory, and then gave subjective ratings of emotion and reliving. A novel fMRI approach based on timing differences capitalized on the protracted reconstructive process of autobiographical memory to segregate brain areas contributing to initial access and later elaboration and maintenance of episodic memories. The initial period engaged hippocampal, retrosplenial, and medial and right prefrontal activity, whereas the later period recruited visual, precuneus, and left prefrontal activity. Emotional intensity ratings were correlated with activity in several regions, including the amygdala and the hippocampus during the initial period. Reliving ratings were correlated with activity in visual cortex and ventromedial and inferior prefrontal regions during the later period. Frontopolar cortex was the only brain region sensitive to emotional intensity across both periods. Results were confirmed by time-locked averages of the fMRI signal. The findings indicate dynamic recruitment of emotion-, memory-, and sensory-related brain regions during remembering and their dissociable contributions to phenomenological features of the memories.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Affect / physiology*
  • Association Learning / physiology*
  • Autobiographies as Topic
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Imagination / physiology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Mental Recall / physiology*
  • Self Concept*