In our daily lives, we are all constantly setting goals, whether to go to the gym more or to save up for a vacation. In creating goals, some people more specifically outline the steps to get there than others. Those different approaches to planning engage different structures in the brain, according to a new study, depending on specific features, such as how new or far away the plans are.
Published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, the study examined how the brain processes the finer features of autobiographical planning. The researchers, led by Nathan Spreng of Cornell University, asked participants to formulate personal plans in response to a cued goal, such as “freedom from debt” or “exercise more,” while in an fMRI scanner. After the brain scan, participants returned to each goal and rated various features of their plans, including plan detail, novelty, temporal distance, ease of plan formulation, difficulty in goal completion, and confidence in goal accomplishment. The research team then looked at how brain activity varied for each of these plan features using “parametric modulation analysis.”
Spreng spoke with CNS about this analysis, its results and the importance of understanding how we plan events in our lives.
CNS: How did you become personally interested in this research?
Spreng: I have been interested in episodic future-thinking since I was an undergraduate, when I learned about the amnesiac K.C., who, in addition to the inability to remember events from the past, was also unable to image events in the future.
Since that time, a lot of studies have linked the regions of the brain involved in recollection as also being involved in imagining events in the future. However, we often engage our own future in a number of ways, not just imagining particular events that are specific in place and time. I was interested in examining the brain processes involved in how we formulate plans to accomplish personal future goals. This is an important way in which we organize our day-to-day behavior.
CNS: How do you define autobiographical planning?
Spreng: Autobiographical planning involves the identification and sequencing of steps toward achieving a personal goal state. The process combines elements of autobiographical memory with goal-directed planning operations, engaging synchronized activity of medial temporal lobe memory structures, as well as frontal executive regions. This process is similar, yet distinct from the dominant methodology for studying planning called the “Tower of London” (or Tower of Hanoi), which are look-ahead puzzle tasks. These tasks embody core elements of planning (i.e., a recognition of the goal state as distinct from a start position, as well as sequencing the necessary steps to reach a goal); however, they lack a central component of real-world planning: the self.
In the study of autobiographical planning, participants engage in a similar process as the puzzle tasks, but a key ingredient is the inclusion of personally salient information. The autobiographical planning task required participants to devise plans in order to meet specific goals in their personal futures. For example,freedom from debt constituted one of the task goals. Participants viewed the goal cue and then saw two steps they could take toward achieving that goal (good job and save money), as well as an obstacle they needed to overcome in order to achieve the goal (have fun). They were instructed to integrate the steps and obstacles into a cohesive personal plan that would allow them to achieve the goal.
CNS: What is “parametric modulation analysis” and why do you use it?
Spreng: Cognitive neuroscience studies typically look to isolate brain activity during a certain cognitive process by comparing a task of interest to one that differs only with respect to that specific cognitive process. This approach is meant to isolate those regions of the brain where activity differs between task X and task Y. The assumption here is that these regions are associated with the cognitive process that differentiated the tasks.
Parametric modulation takes a different angle when isolating brain function. It looks at relative differences in brain activity during task X that vary along a single dimension (for example, working memory can be parametrically modulated by keeping in mind digit spans of varying lengths, such as 5, 6, or 7 numbers).
In this study, we conducted a parametric modulation analysis of phenomenological features of an autobiographical planning task using self-report ratings. Specifically, we asked our participants to rate plan detail, novelty, temporal distance, ease of plan formulation, difficulty in goal completion, and confidence in goal accomplishment; we then looked at how brain activity changed according to the trial by trial ratings.
CNS: What were your most excited to find?
Spreng: I was excited to find that we engage different brain regions depending on the specific nature of the autobiographical plans we’re constructing. For example, we found that specific autobiographical planning for a clearly envisioned future engaged both default and frontoparietal brain regions. In contrast, more abstract autobiographical planning, constructed from more generalized semantic or affective representations of a less tangible future, involved default, sensory-perceptual and limbic brain structures.
Another interesting finding was our observation of greater right anterior hippocampal activity for temporally distant plans. This finding replicates and extends Donna Addis’ work showing that this same region is involved in imagining the distant future . Together, these finding provide strong converging evidence for the region’s role in temporally remote autobiographical thinking.
CNS: What would be an example of specific versus abstract autobiographical planning?
Spreng: This is an extreme example but for the cue “Exercise more,” specific planning might be: Starting in the Fall term, I will alternate between cardio and free-weight training days, Monday-Tuesday; Thursday-Friday, at the Law gym. I will integrate this program with my class demands by going in the morning before class, except Thursday, when I will go after lunch. In comparison, abstract planning might be: When I am in my late-20s, I will regularly go to the gym before work. But if I have a family, I will make it fit with their schedule, perhaps going much earlier in the morning or later in the day when the kids are asleep.
CNS: What were your findings related to mind wandering?
Spreng: As we demonstrated in a recent meta-analysis, mind wandering reliably engages many of the same brain regions as autobiographical planning. This isn’t surprising given that mind-wandering is, to a great extent, future-oriented. It is almost certainly the case that mind-wandering about a personal future will involve some aspect of autobiographical planning; however, I don’t believe they are the same process. Mind wandering is much more unconstrained, involving a myriad of content including recollection, counterfactual thinking, fantasizing, etc.
CNS: How does this work fit in with, or differ from, past work on this topic?
Spreng: When I introduced the concept in 2010, I emphasized how autobiographical planning, as a single cognitive construct, is associated with interactions among large-scale brain networks involved in future thinking and cognitive control. This paper extends my earlier work by demonstrating that while autobiographical planning engages these large scale brain networks, the particular configuration of brain regions involved in planning for one’s personal future depends on the specific characteristics and qualities of the autobiographical plans that are being constructed.
CNS: What is the significance of your findings for the general public?
Spreng: This work has little immediate translational potential. However, improving our understanding of how we develop plans for our personal future, and how this process is implemented in the brain, may be beneficial for understanding how these processes are disrupted in aging, brain injury or disease.
CNS: What’s next for this line of work?
Spreng: My work in this area thus far has demonstrated that planning one’s personal future involves accessing the past and realigning or reconfiguring these remembrances to construct and plan for future goals. Understanding this intersection between memory and cognitive control, and the large-scale brain networks that support these interactions, continue to be a broad focus of my research.
-Lisa M.P. Munoz