Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Remembering and Forecasting: The Relation between Autobiographical Memory and Episodic Future Thinking

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Remembering and Forecasting: The Relation between Autobiographical Memory and Episodic Future Thinking

Article excerpt

Episodic future thinking is a projection of the self into the future to mentally preexperience an event. Previous work has shown striking similarities between autobiographical memory and episodic future thinking in response to various experimental manipulations. This has nurtured the idea of a shared neurocognitive system underlying both processes. Here, undergraduates generated autobiographical memories and future event representations in response to cue words and requests for important events and rated their characteristics. Important and word-cued events differed markedly on almost all measures. Past, as compared with future, events were rated as more sensorially vivid and less relevant to life story and identity. However, in contrast to previous work, these main effects were qualified by a number of interactions, suggesting important functional differences between the two temporal directions. For both temporal directions, sensory imagery dropped, whereas self-narrative importance and reference to normative cultural life script events increased with increasing temporal distance.

I was wondering what I would have for lunch and had an image of opening my refrigerator and taking out a liverpate. In my imagination, I looked if I had other things in the refrigerator. (Female, 26 years)

I was looking out the window and there was a gray-blue sky and then I happened to imagine my wedding-the moment when I walk from my parents' house to the church and there are flowers and sunshine and wind catches the veil. (Female, 24 years)

Episodic future thinking is "a projection of the self into the future to pre-experience an event" (Atance & O'Neill, 2001, p. 533). As is illustrated by the two examples above (Berntsen & Jacobsen, 2008), imagined future events share many similarities with autobiographical memories of past events. As with memories, imagined future events can be about mundane experiences (e.g., imagining having lunch), as well as about highly significant personal events (e.g., envisioning one's wedding). As with memories, they can be temporally close as well as distant. Importantly, both memories and imagined future events involve mental time travel-that is, the process of projecting oneself forward or backward in time and mentally envisioning oneself actually being situated in the past or future event (Suddendorf & Corballis, 2007; Tulving, 1985). Both processes thus involve sensory and spatial imagery, as well as emotion and knowledge of the self.

More than 20 years ago, Tulving (1985) reformulated his notion of episodic memory to include the ability to mentally project oneself into possible future events. Recently, however, cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience have witnessed an upsurge in experimental studies directly examining the relation between episodic remembering and episodic future thinking (for reviews, see Schacter, Addis, & Buckner, 2007; Suddendorf & Corballis, 2007; Szpunar, in press). Converging evidence from such studies suggests that episodic remembering and episodic future thinking are supported by the same neurocognitive processes. Brainimaging studies have shown high degrees of overlapping neural activity in prefrontal and medial temporal lobe regions, as well as posterior regions, when subjects are asked to remember past versus imagine future events (e.g., Addis, Wong, & Schacter, 2007; Botzung, Denkova, & Manning, 2008; Okuda et al., 2003; Szpunar, Watson, & McDermott, 2007), supporting the idea of a core brain network engaged in both processes (Schacter et al., 2007). Patients with traumatic brain injury who have an inability to recollect past events are also unable to imagine personal events (Hassabis, Kumaran, Vann, & Maguire, 2007; Klein, Loftus, & Kihlstrom, 2002; Tulving, 1985). Past and future mental time travel are affected in similar ways by instructions to generate external versus internal events (Larsen, 1998) and positive versus negative events (D'Argembeau & Van der Linden, 2004; Larsen, 1998), as well as events at different temporal distances from the present (Addis, Wong, & Schacter, 2008; D'Argembeau & Van der Linden, 2004). …

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