Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Although growing evidence has shown that remembering the past and imagining the future recruit a common core network of frontal-parietal-temporal regions, the extent to which these regions contribute to the temporal dimension of autobiographical thought remains unclear. In this fMRI study, we focused on the event-sequencing aspect of time and examined whether ordering past and future events involve common neural substrates. Participants had to determine which of two past (or future) events occurred (or would occur) before the other, and these order judgments were compared with a task requiring to think about the content of the same past or future events. For both past and future events, we found that the left posterior hippocampus was more activated when establishing the order of events, whereas the anterior hippocampus was more activated when representing their content. Aside from the hippocampus, most of the brain regions that were activated when thinking about temporal order (notably the intraparietal sulcus, dorsolateral pFC, dorsal anterior cingulate, and visual cortex) lied outside the core network and may reflect the involvement of controlled processes and visuospatial imagery to locate events in time. Collectively, these findings suggest (a) that the same processing operations are engaged for ordering past events and planned future events in time, (b) that anterior and posterior portions of the hippocampus are involved in processing different aspects of autobiographical thought, and (c) that temporal order is not necessarily an intrinsic property of memory or future thought but instead requires additional, controlled processes.