UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology


Research reveals how the human brain might reconstruct past events

2 July 2015

When remembering something from our past, we often vividly re-experience the whole episode in which it occurred. New research at UCL Institute of Neurology and UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, funded by the Medical Research Council and Wellcome Trust, has now revealed how this might happen in the brain.

The study, published in Nature Communications, shows that when someone tries to remember one aspect of an event, such as who they met yesterday, the representation of the entire event can be reactivated in the brain, including incidental information such as where they were and what they did.

The researchers showed that associations formed between the different aspects of an event allow one aspect to retrieve all the other aspects, a process known as ‘pattern completion’. For example, when remembering who we saw, we often remember other details such as what they were holding and where they were. This means that the entire event can be re-experienced in full.

Using fMRI, the researchers showed that different aspects of an imagined event are reflected in activity in different regions of the brain. When asked about one aspect of an event, activity in the hippocampus correlates with reactivation in these regions, including those incidental to the task, and that this reactivation corresponds to the full event coming to mind.

The experiment involved 26 volunteers, who were asked to imagine and memorise a series of ‘events’ involving different locations, famous people and objects. They were then asked to remember the details of the event based on a single cue. For example, one trial ‘event’ involved US President Barack Obama in a kitchen with a hammer. Volunteers were then asked to remember details based on a single cue, such as ‘where was Obama?’, ‘who was in the kitchen?’ or ‘what object did Obama have?’. When asked to recall different aspects of events, volunteers underwent fMRI scans to measure their brain activity.

The results showed that different parts of the brain showed increased activity when encoding different aspects of each event, and that the hippocampus provides the critical links between them to form a complete memory. Using the previous example, activity increased in one part of the brain when volunteers thought of Obama, another when they thought of the kitchen and another when they thought of the hammer. The study showed that when asked ‘where was Obama?’ activity increased in the regions corresponding to Obama and Kitchen. Critically, activity also increased in the region corresponding to the hammer, despite no requirement to retrieve this item. This ‘reactivation’ correlated with hippocampal activity, suggesting the hippocampus is involved in retrieving the entire event.

The research is the first to provide evidence for this pattern completion process in the human hippocampus, and relate this to the everyday experience of recalling previous life events.

Further information


  • Hippocampus activity, circled in red, seen when forming event memories (courtesy of Dr Aidan Horner)