Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
There is an inconsistency regarding the relationship between thinking about personal past experiences during autobiographical memory (AM) and thinking about other people's mental states during theory of mind (ToM). Neuroimaging studies of AM and ToM consistently report overlap in the brain regions recruited. Lesion data, however, show that amnesic people with AM impairment can have intact ToM, suggesting that distinct neural mechanisms support these abilities [Rosenbaum, R. S., Stuss, D. T., Levine, B., & Tulving, E. Theory of mind is independent of episodic memory. Science, 318, 1257, 2007]. The current fMRI study examined the functional and neural correlates of remembering one's own experiences in response to personal photos (AM condition) and imagining others' experiences in response to strangers' photos (ToM condition). AM and ToM conditions were matched in terms of content and vividness, and were compared directly and to a common baseline. Analyses revealed common activity within frontal and temporal–parietal regions, yet midline structures exhibited greater activity during AM. More specific analyses of event construction and detail elaboration revealed unique activation of the right hippocampus during AM construction, and of lateral regions, such as the right temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) during ToM elaboration. Moreover, a region of left hippocampus/perirhinal cortex appeared to be driven by event vividness. Thus, differences in AM and ToM emerge when a common baseline is used and temporal dynamics are taken into account. Furthermore, the right TPJ and related lateral regions, and not the hippocampus, may be needed for ToM, given that this ability is intact in amnesic people.