By Roland Beniot, Karl Szpunar, and Daniel Schacter | PNAS | October 2014
Although the future often seems intangible, we can make it more concrete by imagining prospective events. Here, using functional MRI, we demonstrate a mechanism by which the ventromedial prefrontal cortex supports such episodic simulations, and thereby contributes to affective foresight: This region supports processes that (i) integrate knowledge related to the elements that constitute an episode and (ii) represent the episode’s emergent affective quality. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex achieves such integration via interactions with distributed cortical regions that process the individual elements. Its activation then signals the affective quality of the ensuing episode, which goes beyond the combined affective quality of its constituting elements. The integrative process further augments long-term retention of the episode, making it available at later time points. This mechanism thus renders the future tangible, providing a basis for farsighted behavior.