How thinking about what could have been affects how we feel about what was

 Felipe De Brigard is Assistant Professor in the departments of Philosophy, Psychology and Neuroscience, and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University. He’s the principal investigator of the Imagination and Modal Cognition lab ( www.imclab.org ) associated with the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. His research concerns memory, imagination, and moral cognition, and has been published in philosophical, psychological, and neuroscientific venues.

Felipe De Brigard is Assistant Professor in the departments of Philosophy, Psychology and Neuroscience, and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University. He’s the principal investigator of the Imagination and Modal Cognition lab (www.imclab.org) associated with the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. His research concerns memory, imagination, and moral cognition, and has been published in philosophical, psychological, and neuroscientific venues.

A Post by Felipe De Brigard.

Our tendency to imagine alternative ways in which past personal events could have occurred instead is frequent and ubiquitous. Traditionally, researchers have argued that these episodic counterfactual thoughts play at least two fundamental functional roles in human psychology (Roese, 1997). On the one hand, upward and additive counterfactuals, which tend to generate negative emotions (e.g., regret), are thought to serve a preparative function in anticipation of similar events that may occur in the future. The idea, to put it simply, is that mentally simulating episodic counterfactual thoughts helps us try out hypothetical versions of events that may re-occur in the future. On the other hand, downward and subtractive counterfactuals, which tend to generate positive emotions (e.g., relief), are thought to serve an affective function in helping agents feel better about their experienced outcomes. However, certain results have proved difficult to explain by this traditional view. For instance, it has been shown that not all downward counterfactuals produced the positive emotions previously associated with their affective role, and that not all upward counterfactuals generated the motivational affect previously associated with their preparative role.

Another observation difficult to accommodate within the traditional view, is the fact that, occasionally, people tend to ruminate repetitively on the same regret-producing counterfactual thought even when they are aware that no similar event may ever happen again. Moreover, for many of these individuals, this recalcitrant rumination is debilitating and negatively affects their future performance. Recently, our lab has been doing some research on the cognitive and neural foundations of repetitive counterfactual rumination in an attempt to understand why it happens, when it happens, and how it can go wrong. And we are approaching these questions from a different field of study: memory reconsolidation.

For many years, the received view about memory held that, once encoded, mnemonic contents were consolidated and became stable and impervious to change. However, recent results have demonstrated that, when reactivated, memories are rendered labile and modifiable, likely requiring a period of reconsolidation to become stable again. Although until very recently most research on memory modification upon reactivation was conducted in animals and with pharmacological methods, a handful of novel behavioral paradigms have allowed us to compare reactivation-induced memory updating against two baselines: non-modified and non-reactivated memories (e.g., Hupbach et al, 2007). Moreover, Hardt et al (2010) recently suggested that the fact that memories become labile upon reactivation and prior to reconsolidation may explain why exercising our imagination during memory reactivation can lead to memory distortions.

Against this background, we hypothesized that episodic counterfactual thinking may differentially affect the content of the reactivated memory relative to simply reactivating the memory without mental modification, or not reactivating it at all. To test this hypothesis, we recently conducted two three-session studies (De Brigard, Hanna, et al., 2018). In session 1, participants came to the lab and provided negative and positive autobiographical memories, and rated said memories along five dimensions: valence, arousal, detail, ease of simulation, and feeling of re-experiencing the event. A week later, participants came back to the lab and were asked to reactivate a subset of the reported memories in one of three conditions: 1) Upward counterfactual, in which they are asked to imagine a better way the event could have occurred; 2) Downward counterfactual, in which they are asked to imagine a worse way in which the event could have occurred, and 3) Attentive remembering, in which they are asked to focus on a non-emotional detail of the memory without engaging in imaginative modification. Finally, a day after the manipulation, participants returned to the lab and were asked to reactivate all the memories reported in session 1, including those not reactivated in session 2 (baseline), and to rate them along the same dimensions as in session 1. That way, we were able to compare the ratings during session 1 and session 3, and evaluate the effect of counterfactual generation against both attentively reactivated memories and a baseline of non-reactivated memories.  

Our studies yielded three main results: 1) Negative autobiographical memories were rated as less negative during the third relative to the first session in the remember and baseline conditions, relative to the counterfactual conditions. This suggests that engaging in episodic counterfactual thinking prevents the normal fading-affect bias typical of emotional memories. 2) By contrast, attentively remembering positive autobiographical memories prevented its valence from decaying, relative to all three other conditions. Taken together, these two findings suggest that attentively remembering without counterfactual modification may be the best strategy to mollify the negative valence of negative autobiographical memories and to preserve the positive valence of positive autobiographical memories. Finally, our findings also indicated an increase in perceived detail for negative autobiographical memories reactivated in the upward counterfactual and the attentive reactivation conditions, a result that is consistent with emotional reappraisal views suggesting that attentional allocation to negative aspects of memories tend to highlight the perceived vividness of the event, relative to focusing on positive aspects instead.

This is the first of many related studies—some published (e.g., De Brigard, Szpunar, Schacter, 2013; De Brigard, et al, 2017; Stanley et al, 2017), some ongoing—whereby we study what we think is a yet unexplored functional role of episodic counterfactual thinking, namely a mnemonic role. More precisely, we believe that counterfactual simulations may help us to curb future behavior not only by allowing us to mentally rehearse possible events (i.e., preparative function) or by inducing us to feel better about the present (i.e., affective function) but also by emotionally regulating the mnemonic content of our retrieved memories in order to update them. Moreover, we think that this mnemonic function is somehow disrupted in people prone to unhealthy levels of repetitive counterfactual rumination, such as individuals with generalized anxiety. Importantly, this hypothesis is entirely consistent with, and largely inspired by, the recently proposed “Integrative Memory Model” of therapeutic success (Lane, Ryan, Nadel and Greenberg, 2015). According to this model, therapeutic success may be the result of changes in injurious memory traces that get reactivated in the context of the therapeutic session in order to be modified into healthier ones after reconsolidation. A critical next step for researchers and therapists is to identify the cognitive processes that are more likely to generate successful and beneficial modifications of reactivated memories during therapy, and to avoid the kinds of imaginative mental simulations that are less likely to promote positive change (De Brigard and Hanna, 2015).


References

De Brigard, F., Hanna, E., St Jacques, P.L., & Schacter, D.L. (2018). How thinking about what could have been affects how we feel about what was. Cognition and Emotion. doi:10.1080/02699931.2018.1478280

De Brigard, F., Szpunar, K.K., & Schacter, D.L. (2013). Coming to grips with the past: Effect of repeated simulation on the perceived plausibility of episodic counterfactual thoughts. Psychological Science. 24(7): 1329-1334.

De Brigard, F. & Hanna, E. (2015). Clinical applications of counterfactual thinking during memory reactivation. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 38: 22-23.

De Brigard, F., Parikh, N., Stewart, G.W., Szpunar, K.K., & Schacter, D.L. (2017). Neural activity associated with repetitive simulation of episodic counterfactual thoughts. Neuropsychologia. 106: 123-132.

Hardt, O, Einarsson, E Ö, & Nader, K. (2010) A bridge over troubled water: reconsolidation as a link between cognitive and neuroscientific memory research traditions. Annual Review of Psychology, 61, 141–167.

Hupbach, A., Gomez, R., Hardt, O., & Nadel, L. (2007). Reconsolidation of episodic memories: A subtle reminder triggers integration of new information. Learning & Memory, 14, 47–53.

Lane, R.D., Ryan, L., Nadel, L., & Greenber, L. (2015) Memory reconsolidation, Emotional Arousal and the Process of Change in Psychotherapy: New Insights from Brain Science. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 38.

Roese, N. J. (1997). Counterfactual thinking. Psychological Bulletin,121, 133–148.

Stanley, M.L., Stewart, G.W., & De Brigard, F. (2017). Counterfactual plausibility and comparative similarity. Cognitive Science. 41 (Supl.5): 1216-1228.