Present and future self in memory: the role of vmPFC in the self-reference effect

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2021 Dec 30;16(12):1205-1213. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsab071.


Self-related information is remembered better than other-related information (self-reference effect; SRE), a phenomenon that has been convincingly linked to the medial prefrontal cortex. It is not clear whether information related to our future self would also have a privileged status in memory, as medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) regions respond less to the future than to the present self, as if it were an 'other'. Here we ask whether the integrity of the ventral mPFC (vmPFC) is necessary for the emergence of the present and future SRE, if any. vmPFC patients and brain-damaged and healthy controls judged whether each of a series of trait adjectives was descriptive of their present self, future self, another person and that person in the future and later recognized studied traits among distractors. Information relevant to the present (vs future) was generally recognized better, across groups. However, whereas healthy and brain-damaged controls exhibited strong present and future SREs, these were absent in vmPFC patients, who concomitantly showed reduced certainty about their own present and anticipated traits compared to the control groups. These findings indicate that vmPFC is necessary to impart a special mnemonic status to self-related information, including our envisioned future self, possibly by instantiating the self-schema.

Keywords: future thinking; memory; mental time travel; self; ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brain Injuries*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Memory
  • Mental Recall
  • Prefrontal Cortex*