Thinking about the past to shape the present: neural activation during the recall of relationship episodes

Behav Brain Res. 2019 Feb 1;359:783-791. doi: 10.1016/j.bbr.2018.08.001. Epub 2018 Aug 2.


Reflecting on oneself and others in relationships is an ability that is central to our social existence. Specifically, considering formative autobiographical experiences in relationships may contribute to more flexibility in perceiving, as well as in shaping present relationships. Reflecting on such experiences mobilizes different social cognitive and affective processes. We aim to explore the neural basis of these processes. With a newly developed functional magnetic imaging (fMRI) task, we investigated brain activation in 35 healthy individuals during recall of relationship episodes involving themselves or others. We found that recalling formative episodes involving themselves modulated brain activity in the right parahippocampus, left precuneus, bilateral fusiform gyrus, bilateral insula, and left presupplementary motor area. These areas are involved in memory processes, self-generated thought, and affective experience. The recall of relationship episodes involving others led to similar activation patterns. Our results underscore the close link between self-reflection, understanding others, and memory processes and emphasize the role of affective dimensions for self-relevant experiences. They contribute to a growing body of research on neural mechanisms involved in complex social cognitive processes decisive for our capacity to navigate our social environment.

Keywords: Autobiographical recall; Functional magnetic resonance imaging; Relationship episodes; Self- and other-referencing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Arousal
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Correlation of Data
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Mental Recall / physiology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Self Report
  • Thinking / physiology*


  • Oxygen