To engage in purposeful behavior, it is important to make plans, which organize subsequent actions. Most studies of planning involve “look-ahead” puzzle tasks that are unrelated to personal goals. We developed a task to assess autobiographical planning, which involves the formulation of personal plans in response to real-world goals, and examined autobiographical planning in 63 adults during fMRI scanning. Autobiographical planning was found to engage the default network, including medial-temporal lobe and midline structures, and executive control regions in lateral pFC and parietal cortex and caudate. To examine how specific qualitative features of autobiographical plans modulate neural activity, we performed parametric modulation analyses. Ratings of plan detail, novelty, temporal distance, ease of plan formulation, difficulty in goal completion, and confidence in goal accomplishment were used as covariates in six hierarchical linear regression models. This modeling procedure removed shared variance among the ratings, allowing us to determine the independent relationship between ratings of interest and trial-wise BOLD signal. We found that specific autobiographical planning, describing a detailed, achievable, and actionable planning process for attaining a clearly envisioned future, recruited both default and frontoparietal brain regions. In contrast, abstract autobiographical planning, plans that were constructed from more generalized semantic or affective representations of a less tangible and distant future, involved interactions among default, sensory perceptual, and limbic brain structures. Specific qualities of autobiographical plans are important predictors of default and frontoparietal control network engagement during plan formation and reflect the contribution of mnemonic and executive control processes to autobiographical planning.

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