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Hippocampus. 2014 Nov;24(11):1261-6. doi: 10.1002/hipo.22323. Epub 2014 Jul 11.

Counterfactual thinking in patients with amnesia.

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Institute of Neuroscience, Henry Wellcome Building for Neuroecology, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, United Kingdom.


We often engage in counterfactual (CF) thinking, which involves reflecting on "what might have been." Creating alternative versions of reality seems to have parallels with recollecting the past and imagining the future in requiring the simulation of internally generated models of complex events. Given that episodic memory and imagining the future are impaired in patients with hippocampal damage and amnesia, we wondered whether successful CF thinking also depends upon the integrity of the hippocampus. Here using two nonepisodic CF thinking tasks, we found that patients with bilateral hippocampal damage and amnesia performed comparably with matched controls. They could deconstruct reality, add in and recombine elements, change relations between temporal sequences of events, enabling them to determine plausible alternatives of complex episodes. A difference between the patients and control participants was evident, however, in the patients' subtle avoidance of CF simulations that required the construction of an internal spatial representation. Overall, our findings suggest that mental simulation in the form of nonepisodic CF thinking does not seem to depend upon the hippocampus unless there is the added requirement for construction of a coherent spatial scene within which to play out scenarios.


amnesia; counterfactual thinking; episodic memory; hippocampus; imagination; scene construction

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