The Neural Dynamics of Individual Differences in Episodic Autobiographical Memory

eNeuro. 2020 Apr 20;7(2):ENEURO.0531-19.2020. doi: 10.1523/ENEURO.0531-19.2020. Print Mar/Apr 2020.


The ability to mentally travel to specific events from one's past, dubbed episodic autobiographical memory (E-AM), contributes to adaptive functioning. Nonetheless, the mechanisms underlying its typical interindividual variation remain poorly understood. To address this issue, we capitalize on existing evidence that successful performance on E-AM tasks draws on the ability to visualize past episodes and reinstate their unique spatiotemporal context. Hence, here, we test whether features of the brain's functional architecture relevant to perceptual versus conceptual processes shape individual differences in both self-rated E-AM and laboratory-based episodic memory (EM) for random visual scene sequences (visual EM). We propose that superior subjective E-AM and visual EM are associated with greater similarity in static neural organization patterns, potentially indicating greater efficiency in switching, between rest and mental states relevant to encoding perceptual information. Complementarily, we postulate that impoverished subjective E-AM and visual EM are linked to dynamic brain organization patterns implying a predisposition towards semanticizing novel perceptual information. Analyses were conducted on resting state and task-based fMRI data from 329 participants (160 women) in the Human Connectome Project (HCP) who completed visual and verbal EM assessments, and an independent gender diverse sample (N = 59) who self-rated their E-AM. Interindividual differences in subjective E-AM were linked to the same neural mechanisms underlying visual, but not verbal, EM, in general agreement with the hypothesized static and dynamic brain organization patterns. Our results suggest that higher E-AM entails more efficient processing of temporally extended information sequences, whereas lower E-AM entails more efficient semantic or gist-based processing.

Keywords: autobiographical memory; dynamic connectivity; episodic memory; functional networks.