BACKGROUND: Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis have used advanced brain imaging techniques to show that remembering the past and envisioning the future may go hand-in-hand, with each process showing strikingly similar patterns of activity within precisely the same broad network of brain regions. This suggests that envisioning the future may be a critical prerequisite for many higher-level planning processes in the brain.
WHAT IS fMRI: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses radio waves and a strong magnetic field rather than X-rays to take clear and detailed pictures of internal organs and tissues. fMRI uses this technology to identify regions of the brain where blood vessels are expanding, chemical changes are taking place, or extra oxygen is being delivered. These are indications that a particular part of the brain is processing information and giving commands to the body. As a patient performs a particular task, the metabolism will increase in the brain area responsible for that task, changing the signal in the MRI image. So by performing specific tasks that correspond to different functions, scientists can locate the part of the brain that governs that function.
ABOUT THE STUDY: The researchers relied on fMRI to capture patterns of brain activation as college students were given 10 seconds to develop a vivid mental image of themselves or a famous celebrity participating in a range of common life experiences. Presented with a series of memory cues -- such as getting lost, spending time with a friend, or attending a birthday party -- participants were asked to recall a related event from their own past; to envision themselves experiencing such an event in their future life; or to picture a famous celebrity (specifically, former U.S. president Bill Clinton) participating in such an event.
WHAT THEY FOUND: Comparing images of brain activity in response to the 'self-remember' and 'self future' event cues, researchers found a surprisingly complete overlap among regions of the brain used for remembering the past and those used for envisioning the future. The study clearly demonstrates that the neural network underlying future thoughts is not only happening in the brain's frontal cortex. Although the frontal lobes play an important role in carrying out future-oriented operations -- such as anticipation, planning and monitoring -- the spark for these activities may be the process of envisioning yourself in a specific future event. And that's an activity based on the same brain network used to remember memories about our own lives. Also, patterns of activity suggest that the visual and spatial context for our imagined future is often pieced together using our past experiences, including memories of specific body movements: data our brain has stored as we navigated through similar settings in the past.