Monday, March 04, 2024

Brains creating stories of selves: the neural basis of autobiographical reasoning

We all create our experienced selves from autobiographical reasoning based on remembered events in stories from our lives. In the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience  D'Argembeau et al.  (open source) do an interesting fMRI study observing brain areas that are active during this process that are not recruited by more simple factual recall of the events.

...A few days before the scanning session, participants selected a set of memories that have been important in developing and sustaining their sense of self and identity (self-defining memories). During scanning, we instructed participants to approach each of their memories in two different ways: in some trials, they had to remember the concrete content of the event in order to mentally re-experience the situation in its original context (autobiographical remembering), whereas in other trials they were asked to reflect on the broader meaning and implications of their memory (autobiographical reasoning). Contrasting the neural activity associated with these two ways of approaching the same self-defining memories allowed us to identify the brain regions specifically involved in the autobiographical reasoning process.

The text of the article notes the functions of the brain areas mentioned in the article abstract (below) and has a nice graphic depiction of areas that were more active during autobiographical remembering compared with autobiographical reasoning versus areas that were more active during autobiographical reasoning compared with autobiographical remembering.  Here is the abstract:

Personal identity critically depends on the creation of stories about the self and one’s life. The present study investigates the neural substrates of autobiographical reasoning, a process central to the construction of such narratives. During functional magnetic resonance imaging scanning, participants approached a set of personally significant memories in two different ways: in some trials, they remembered the concrete content of the events (autobiographical remembering), whereas in other trials they reflected on the broader meaning and implications of their memories (autobiographical reasoning). Relative to remembering, autobiographical reasoning recruited a left-lateralized network involved in conceptual processing [including the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), inferior frontal gyrus, middle temporal gyrus and angular gyrus]. The ventral MPFC—an area that may function to generate personal/affective meaning—was not consistently engaged during autobiographical reasoning across participants but, interestingly, the activity of this region was modulated by individual differences in interest and willingness to engage in self-reflection. These findings support the notion that autobiographical reasoning and the construction of personal narratives go beyond mere remembering in that they require deriving meaning and value from past experiences.

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