Neural circuitry in the medial temporal lobe (MTL) is critically involved in mental time travel, which involves the vivid retrieval of the details of past experience. Neuroscientific theories propose that the MTL supports memory of the past by retrieving previously encoded episodic information, as well as by reactivating a temporal code specifying the position of a particular event within an episode. However, the neural computations supporting these abilities are underspecified. To test hypotheses regarding the computational mechanisms supported by different MTL subregions during mental time travel, we developed a computational model that linked a blood oxygenation level-dependent signal to cognitive operations, allowing us to predict human performance in a memory search task. Activity in the posterior MTL, including parahippocampal cortex, reflected how strongly one reactivates the temporal context of a retrieved memory, allowing the model to predict whether the next memory will correspond to a nearby moment in the study episode. A signal in the anterior MTL, including perirhinal cortex, indicated the successful retrieval of list items, without providing information regarding temporal organization. A hippocampal signal reflected both processes, consistent with theories that this region binds item and context information together to form episodic memories. These findings provide evidence for modern theories that describe complementary roles of the hippocampus and surrounding parahippocampal and perirhinal cortices during the retrieval of episodic memories, shaping how humans revisit the past.
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