What if? Neural activity underlying semantic and episodic counterfactual thinking

Neuroimage. 2018 Sep:178:332-345. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.05.053. Epub 2018 May 25.


Counterfactual thinking (CFT) is the process of mentally simulating alternative versions of known facts. In the past decade, cognitive neuroscientists have begun to uncover the neural underpinnings of CFT, particularly episodic CFT (eCFT), which activates regions in the default network (DN) also activated by episodic memory (eM) recall. However, the engagement of DN regions is different for distinct kinds of eCFT. More plausible counterfactuals and counterfactuals about oneself show stronger activity in DN regions compared to implausible and other- or object-focused counterfactuals. The current study sought to identify a source for this difference in DN activity. Specifically, self-focused counterfactuals may also be more plausible, suggesting that DN core regions are sensitive to the plausibility of a simulation. On the other hand, plausible and self-focused counterfactuals may involve more episodic information than implausible and other-focused counterfactuals, which would imply DN sensitivity to episodic information. In the current study, we compared episodic and semantic counterfactuals generated to be plausible or implausible against episodic and semantic memory reactivation using fMRI. Taking multivariate and univariate approaches, we found that the DN is engaged more during episodic simulations, including eM and all eCFT, than during semantic simulations. Semantic simulations engaged more inferior temporal and lateral occipital regions. The only region that showed strong plausibility effects was the hippocampus, which was significantly engaged for implausible CFT but not for plausible CFT, suggestive of binding more disparate information. Consequences of these findings for the cognitive neuroscience of mental simulation are discussed.

Keywords: Counterfactual thinking; Episodic memory; Partial least squares; Plausibility; Semantic memory.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping / methods
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Imagination / physiology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Memory, Episodic
  • Thinking / physiology*
  • Young Adult