The hippocampus distinguishes immediate goals from future goals

summary: Researchers have discovered how the brain prioritizes immediate and distant goals. Their study found that the hippocampus processes immediate goals faster and differently than future goals.

This insight can help understand psychological disorders such as depression, which affect goal-setting abilities. The results reveal crucial differences in brain activity and behavior related to goal prioritization.

Key facts:

  1. Hippocampal activityImmediate goals activate the posterior hippocampus, while future goals activate the frontal area.
  2. Reaction times: Goals to be achieved immediately are recognized faster than goals that are far away.
  3. Implications of unrest: Visions can help understand and treat psychological disorders such as depression.

source: University of Geneva

How does our brain distinguish between urgent and less urgent goals?

Researchers at the University of Geneva (UNIGE) and the Icahn School of Medicine in New York have discovered how our brain remembers and adjusts the goals we set for ourselves on a daily basis.

Their study reveals differences in the way we process immediate and distant goals, at both the behavioral and brain levels.

These discoveries are described in the journal Nature CommunicationsIt could have major implications for understanding mental disorders, especially depression, which can hinder the formulation of clear goals.

Throughout the day, we set ourselves goals to achieve: pick the kids up from school in one hour, make dinner in three hours, make a doctor’s appointment in five days, or mow the lawn in a week. These goals, both urgent and less urgent, are constantly redefined based on events occurring throughout the day.

Researchers from UNIGE and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York studied how the brain memorizes and updates goals to be achieved. More specifically, how the brain determines which goals require immediate attention and which do not.

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Their study focused on a specific brain region, the hippocampus, because of its well-established role in episodic memory. This is responsible for encoding, consolidating and retrieving personally experienced information, integrating its emotional, spatial and temporal context.

A fictional mission to Mars in the time of MRI

Neuroscientists asked 31 people to imagine themselves on an imaginary 4-year space mission to Mars, requiring them to achieve a series of goals critical to their survival (taking care of their space helmet, exercising, eating certain foods, etc.). Mission objectives varied according to the time in which they were to be achieved, with different missions for each of the four years of the journey.

As participants progressed through the task, they were presented with the same objectives. They were then asked to indicate whether these goals were past, present, or future.

As participants moved forward in time, the importance of these goals changed: goals initially planned for the future became current needs, while current needs became past goals. In this way, participants had to manage several goals at different time distances and update their priorities as their task progressed.

Prioritize immediate goals

The team observed each individual’s reaction times to determine whether the task would be accomplished in the present, past, or future.

“Goals that must be achieved immediately are recognized more quickly than those that must be achieved in the distant future. This different processing of stored information reveals the priority given to needs in the present over needs of the distant future.

“It takes additional time to mentally travel back in time to retrieve past and future goals,” explains Alison Montagrin, a research and teaching fellow in the Department of Basic Neurosciences at the University of Geneva Medical School, and a former postdoctoral fellow at the Icahn School. Medicine, the first author of the study.

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The scientists also investigated whether the differences were also evident at the brain level. Images obtained using high-resolution MRI revealed that when retrieving information about the present, the hippocampus in its posterior region is activated. On the other hand, when remembering past goals or goals to be achieved in the future, the frontal area is activated.

“These results are particularly interesting because previous studies have shown that when we recall our episodic or spatial memory, the anterior area of ​​the hippocampus is involved in retrieving general information, while the posterior part deals with details.

“It would therefore be interesting to explore whether future projection or recollection of a past goal – as opposed to immediate goals – does not require specific details, but rather a general representation is sufficient,” the researcher concludes.

This research shows that timescale plays a crucial role in the way people set their personal goals. This could have important implications for understanding psychological disorders such as depression.

In fact, people with depression may have difficulties forming specific goals and perceive more obstacles in achieving their goals. Investigating whether these people view the distance from their goals differently — which may make them pessimistic about their chances of success — could open a therapeutic avenue.

About this neuroscience research news

author: Antoine Guinot
source: University of Geneva
communication: Antoine Guénot – University of Geneva
picture: Image credited to Neuroscience News

Original search: Open access.
The hippocampus separates the present from past and future goals“By Alison Montagren et al. Nature Communications


a summary

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The hippocampus separates the present from past and future goals

Our brain skillfully switches between goals across time frames, distinguishing between immediate needs and needs of the past or future.

The hippocampus is a region known to support mental time travel and organize information along its longitudinal axis, moving from detailed posterior representation to generalized anterior representation.

This study investigates the role of the hippocampus in discrimination of targets over time: whether the hippocampus encodes time regardless of detail or abstraction, and whether the hippocampus preferentially activates its anterior region for temporally distant targets (past and future) and its posterior region for immediate targets. .

We use a space-based experiment with 7T fMRI on 31 participants to examine how the hippocampus encodes the temporal distance of targets.

During a Mars mission simulation, we found that the hippocampus tracks targets only by temporal proximity. We showed that past and future goals activate the left anterior hippocampus, while current goals activate the left posterior hippocampus.

This suggests that the hippocampus maps goals using time stamps, extending its long axis system to include the organization of temporal goals.

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