Constructive episodic simulation: temporal distance and detail of past and future events modulate hippocampal engagement

Hippocampus. 2008;18(2):227-37. doi: 10.1002/hipo.20405.


Behavioral, lesion and neuroimaging evidence show striking commonalities between remembering past events and imagining future events. In a recent event-related fMRI study, we instructed participants to construct a past or future event in response to a cue. Once an event was in mind, participants made a button press, then generated details (elaboration) and rated them. The elaboration of past and future events recruited a common neural network. However, regions within this network may respond differentially to event characteristics, such as the amount of detail generated and temporal distance, depending on whether the event is in the past or future. To investigate this further, we conducted parametric modulation analyses, with temporal distance and detail as covariates, and focused on the medial temporal lobes and frontopolar cortex. The analysis of detail (independent of temporal distance) showed that the left posterior hippocampus was responsive to the amount of detail comprising both past and future events. In contrast, the left anterior hippocampus responded differentially to the amount of detail comprising future events, possibly reflecting the recombination of details into a novel future event. The analysis of temporal distance revealed that the increasing recency of past events correlated with activity in the right parahippocampus gyrus (Brodmann area (BA) 35/36), while activity in the bilateral hippocampus was significantly correlated with the increasing remoteness of future events. We propose that the hippocampal response to the distance of future events reflects the increasing disparateness of details likely included in remote future events, and the intensive relational processing required for integrating such details into a coherent episodic simulation of the future. These findings provide further support for the constructive episodic simulation hypothesis (Schacter and Addis (2007) Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 362:773-786) and highlight the involvement of the hippocampus in relational processing during elaboration of future events.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Female
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology
  • Functional Laterality / physiology
  • Hippocampus / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Imagination / physiology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Mental Recall / physiology*
  • Parahippocampal Gyrus / physiology
  • Temporal Lobe / physiology
  • Time Perception / physiology*