Cognitive neuroscience of human counterfactual reasoning

Nicole Van Hoeck, Patrick D. Watson, Aron K. Barbey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Counterfactual reasoning is a hallmark of human thought, enabling the capacity to shift from perceiving the immediate environment to an alternative, imagined perspective. Mental representations of counterfactual possibilities (e.g., imagined past events or future outcomes not yet at hand) provide the basis for learning from past experience, enable planning and prediction, support creativity and insight, and give rise to emotions and social attributions (e.g., regret and blame). Yet remarkably little is known about the psychological and neural foundations of counterfactual reasoning. In this review, we survey recent findings from psychology and neuroscience indicating that counterfactual thought depends on an integrative network of systems for affective processing, mental simulation, and cognitive control. We review evidence to elucidate how these mechanisms are systematically altered through psychiatric illness and neurological disease. We propose that counterfactual thinking depends on the coordination of multiple information processing systems that together enable adaptive behavior and goal-directed decision making and make recommendations for the study of counterfactual inference in health, aging, and disease.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number420
Pages (from-to)1-18
Number of pages18
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
Volume9
Issue numberJULY
DOIs
StatePublished - Jul 23 2015

Keywords

  • Adaptive behavior
  • Clinical disorders
  • Counterfactual thought
  • Mental simulation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Neurology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Biological Psychiatry
  • Behavioral Neuroscience

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