Episodic memory and episodic future thinking activate a network of overlapping brain regions, but little is known about the mechanism with which the brain separates the two processes. It was recently suggested that differential activity for memory and future thinking may be linked to differences in the phenomenal properties (e.g., richness of detail). Using functional magnetic resonance imaging in healthy subjects and a novel experimental design, we investigated the networks involved in the imagery of future and the recall of past events for the same target occasion, i.e. the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, thereby keeping temporal distance and content similar across conditions. Although ratings of phenomenal characteristics were comparable for future thoughts and memories, differential activation patterns emerged. The right posterior hippocampus exhibited stronger memory-related activity during early event recall, and stronger future thought-related activity during late event imagination. Other regions, e.g., the precuneus and lateral prefrontal cortex, showed the reverse activation pattern with early future-associated and late past-associated activation. Memories compared to future thoughts were further related to stronger activation in several visual processing regions, which accords with a reactivation of the original perceptual experience. In conclusion, the results showed for the first time unique neural signatures for both memory and future thinking even in the absence of differences in phenomenal properties and suggested different time courses of brain activation for episodic memory and future thinking.
Weiler, J. A., Suchan, B., &Daum, I. (2010). When the future becomes the past: Differences in brain activation patterns for episodic memory and episodic future thinking. Behavioural brain research, 212(2), 196-203.