Episodic future thinking and episodic counterfactual thinking: intersections between memory and decisions

Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2015 Jan:117:14-21. doi: 10.1016/j.nlm.2013.12.008. Epub 2013 Dec 25.


This article considers two recent lines of research concerned with the construction of imagined or simulated events that can provide insight into the relationship between memory and decision making. One line of research concerns episodic future thinking, which involves simulating episodes that might occur in one's personal future, and the other concerns episodic counterfactual thinking, which involves simulating episodes that could have happened in one's personal past. We first review neuroimaging studies that have examined the neural underpinnings of episodic future thinking and episodic counterfactual thinking. We argue that these studies have revealed that the two forms of episodic simulation engage a common core network including medial parietal, prefrontal, and temporal regions that also supports episodic memory. We also note that neuroimaging studies have documented neural differences between episodic future thinking and episodic counterfactual thinking, including differences in hippocampal responses. We next consider behavioral studies that have delineated both similarities and differences between the two kinds of episodic simulation. The evidence indicates that episodic future and counterfactual thinking are characterized by similarly reduced levels of specific detail compared with episodic memory, but that the effects of repeatedly imagining a possible experience have sharply contrasting effects on the perceived plausibility of those events during episodic future thinking versus episodic counterfactual thinking. Finally, we conclude by discussing the functional consequences of future and counterfactual simulations for decisions.

Keywords: Core network; Default network; Episodic counterfactual thinking; Episodic future thinking; Episodic memory; Hippocampus.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Brain
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Imagination / physiology*
  • Memory, Episodic*
  • Nerve Net
  • Thinking / physiology*
  • Time Factors