Research on brain areas involved when we imagine people, places, and pleasantness

This highly jargoned 2014 Harvard study was on how people imagine that they’ll feel in the future.

One of the researchers was an author of:

I was surprised that this study also didn’t ignore the limbic system to the point to where the researchers wouldn’t even bother to measure important areas.

Limbic system areas that process people were different than those that process places. For example, the data in Table S4 showed that the subjects’ left amygdala and hippocampus were more activated when simulating future familiar people, whereas their right hippocampus was more activated when simulating future familiar places.

The researchers may have improved the study’s findings if they were informed by studies such as the Hippocampus replays memories and preplays to extend memories into future scenarios, which found that “place” cells in the CA1 segment of the hippocampus preplay events that imagine future scenarios of:

“Novel spatial experiences of similar distinctiveness and complexity.”

Such information may have helped to disambiguate one of the study’s findings in Table S5, that both sides of the subjects’ hippocampus were more activated than other brain regions when simulating both familiar people and places.

The researchers got a little carried away in broadly attributing most of the study’s findings to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. For example, the data in Table S6 showed that the thalamus was more activated when the subjects anticipated positive pleasantness, but not when negative effects were anticipated.

We know from Thalamus gating and control of the limbic system and cerebrum is a form of memory that this is normally how the thalamus part of the limbic system actively controls and gates information to and from the cerebrum. Their data showed thalamic gating in operation:

  • Active when passing along pleasantness to cerebral areas, and
  • Passive when blocking unpleasantness from cerebral areas.

Also, I didn’t see how the researchers differentiated some of their findings from a placebo effect. For example, Using expectations of oxytocin to induce positive placebo effects of touching is a cerebral exercise found:

“Pain reduction dampened sensory processing in the brain, whereas increased touch pleasantness increased sensory processing.”

This was very similar to the above finding involving the thalamus. “Ventromedial prefrontal cortex supports affective future simulation by integrating distributed knowledge”

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