Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Vividly remembering the past and imagining the future (mental time travel) seem to rely on common neural substrates and mental time travel impairments in patients with brain lesions seem to encompass both temporal domains. However, because future thinking—or more generally imagining novel events—involves the recombination of stored elements into a new event, it requires additional resources that are not shared by episodic memory. We aimed to demonstrate this asymmetry in an event generation task administered to two patients with lesions in the medial dorsal thalamus. Because of the dense connection with pFC, this nucleus of the thalamus is implicated in executive aspects of memory (strategic retrieval), which are presumably more important for future thinking than for episodic memory. Compared with groups of healthy matched control participants, both patients could only produce novel events with extensive help of the experimenter (prompting) in the absence of episodic memory problems. Impairments were most pronounced for imagining personal fictitious and impersonal events. More precisely, the patients' descriptions of novel events lacked content and spatio-temporal relations. The observed impairment is unlikely to trace back to disturbances in self-projection, scene construction, or time concept and could be explained by a recombination deficit. Thus, although memory and the imagination of novel events are tightly linked, they also partly rely on different processes.