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PLoS One. 2012;7(9):e45089. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0045089. Epub 2012 Sep 21.

Are autobiographical memories inherently social? Evidence from an fMRI study.

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  • 1Department of Epileptology, University of Bonn, Bonn, Germany.


The story of our lifetime - our narrative self - is constructed from our autobiographical memories. A central claim of social psychology is that this narrative self is inherently social: When we construct our lives, we do so in a real or imagined interaction. This predicts that self-referential processes which are involved in recall of autobiographical memories overlap with processes involved in social interactions. Indeed, previous functional MRI studies indicate that regions in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) are activated during autobiographical memory recall and virtual communication. However, no fMRI study has investigated recall of autobiographical memories in a real-life interaction. We developed a novel paradigm in which participants overtly reported self-related and other-related memories to an experimenter, whose non-verbal reactions were being filmed and online displayed to the participants in the scanner. We found that recall of autobiographical vs. non-autobiographical memories was associated with activation of the mPFC, as was recall in the social as compared to a non-social control condition; however, both contrasts involved different non-overlapping regions within the mPFC. These results indicate that self-referential processes involved in autobiographical memory recall are different from processes supporting social interactions, and argue against the hypothesis that autobiographical memories are inherently social.

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