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Brain mechanisms underlying prospective thinking of sustainable behaviours


The preservation of our environment requires sustainable ways of thinking and living. Here, we aimed to explore the core network of brain regions involved in the prospective thinking about (un)sustainable behaviours. Using a neuroimaging cue-exposure paradigm, we requested participants (n = 86) to report behaviours that were the most feasible for them to implement (sustainable behaviour) or diminish (unsustainable behaviour) in the future. We find that increasing sustainable behaviours was perceived to be more feasible than reducing unsustainable ones. Consistent with the role of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and hippocampus in providing access to new representations of past behaviours, we observed stronger activation of these regions when picturing an increase in sustainable behaviours. Critically, simulating the reduction of unsustainable behaviours triggered activation within the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (a key region for inhibitory-control processes), which was negatively associated with hippocampal activation (a key region for memory). These findings suggest that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex downregulates brain regions that support memory retrieval of unsustainable behaviours. This mechanism could inhibit the access to episodic details associated with unsustainable behaviours and in turn allow for prospective thinking of sustainable behaviours. These findings provide an initial step towards a better understanding of the brain networks that are involved in the adoption of sustainable habits.

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Fig. 1: Examples of ‘do more’ and ‘do less’ cues used during the cue-exposure task.
Fig. 2: Feasibility ratings across the ‘do less’ and ‘do more’ cues.
Fig. 3: Brain imaging results for ‘do less’ trials.
Fig. 4: Brain imaging results for ‘do more’ trials.
Fig. 5: Significant PPI with the rdlPFC seed for the parametric contrast for feasibility ratings linked to ‘do less’ trials.

Data availability

The raw data are available at OpenNeuro ( The unthresholded statistical maps are available at Neurovault (

Code availability

The experimental task code and stimuli are available at GitHub (


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D.B. is supported by the Luxembourg National Research Fund (FNR); CORE—Junior Track (BETHAB). P.M. (Senior Research Associate) is funded by the Belgian Fund for Scientific Research (F.R.S., FNRS, Brussels, Belgium). C.B. was supported by the ‘Bijzonder Onderzoeksfonds’ (no. BOF 16/GOA/017), and the ‘Rode Neuzen’ funding for scientific research (no. G0F4617N).

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D.B., C.B., C.V. and J.B. designed the study and wrote the protocol. D.B. recruited the participants, collected the data and conducted the statistical analysis. C.B., P.M., G.S., C.V. and J.B. provided experimental support and revision suggestions. D.B. wrote the original draft of the manuscript. All of the authors made a substantial contribution to and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Damien Brevers.

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Peer review information Nature Sustainability thanks the anonymous reviewers for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Table 1: descriptive statistics on post-ratings. Supplementary Table 2: significant brain activation on the cue exposure task.

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Brevers, D., Baeken, C., Maurage, P. et al. Brain mechanisms underlying prospective thinking of sustainable behaviours. Nat Sustain (2021).

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