Remembering what could have happened: neural correlates of episodic counterfactual thinking

Neuropsychologia. 2013 Oct;51(12):2401-14. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2013.01.015. Epub 2013 Jan 31.


Recent evidence suggests that our capacities to remember the past and to imagine what might happen in the future largely depend on the same core brain network that includes the middle temporal lobe, the posterior cingulate/retrosplenial cortex, the inferior parietal lobe, the medial prefrontal cortex, and the lateral temporal cortex. However, the extent to which regions of this core brain network are also responsible for our capacity to think about what could have happened in our past, yet did not occur (i.e., episodic counterfactual thinking), is still unknown. The present study examined this issue. Using a variation of the experimental recombination paradigm (Addis, Pan, Vu, Laiser, & Schacter, 2009. Neuropsychologia. 47: 2222-2238), participants were asked both to remember personal past events and to envision alternative outcomes to such events while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging. Three sets of analyses were performed on the imaging data in order to investigate two related issues. First, a mean-centered spatiotemporal partial least square (PLS) analysis identified a pattern of brain activity across regions of the core network that was common to episodic memory and episodic counterfactual thinking. Second, a non-rotated PLS analysis identified two different patterns of brain activity for likely and unlikely episodic counterfactual thoughts, with the former showing significant overlap with the set of regions engaged during episodic recollection. Finally, a parametric modulation was conducted to explore the differential engagement of brain regions during counterfactual thinking, revealing that areas such as the parahippocampal gyrus and the right hippocampus were modulated by the subjective likelihood of counterfactual simulations. These results suggest that episodic counterfactual thinking engages regions that form the core brain network, and also that the subjective likelihood of our counterfactual thoughts modulates the engagement of different areas within this set of regions.

Keywords: Counterfactual thinking; Episodic memory; FMRI; Imagination; Mental time travel; Partial least squares.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Brain / physiology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Female
  • Hippocampus / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Imagination / physiology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Memory, Episodic*
  • Mental Recall / physiology*
  • Parahippocampal Gyrus / physiology*
  • Thinking / physiology*
  • Young Adult