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WIREs Cogn Sci
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Shadowing the wandering mind: how understanding the mind‐wandering state can inform our appreciation of conscious experience

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The mind‐wandering state illustrates two fundamental aspects of consciousness: its generative nature, which is reflected by the stimulus‐independent content of thought that occurs when our minds wander; and metacognition, the unique capacity of the mind to reflect and understand itself. Self‐generated thought, which allows us to consider people and events that are not present in the immediate environment, and metacognition, allowing us to introspect and report our inner experiences, are both essential to the scientific study of mind‐wandering. Nevertheless, they also inevitably lead to specific issues that mirror more general problems in the field of consciousness research. The generative nature of consciousness makes it difficult to have direct control on the phenomenon, and the act of introspecting on inner experience has the potential to influence the state itself. We illustrate how the field of mind‐wandering research can overcome these problems. Its generative nature can be understood by triangulating the objective measures (such as neural function) with subjective measures of experience and it can be manipulated indirectly by varying the demands of the external environment. Furthermore, we describe candidate covert markers for the mind‐wandering state, which allow the phenomenon to be observed without direct interference, minimizing the concern that instructions to introspect necessarily change conscious experience. WIREs Cogn Sci 2016, 7:233–246. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1392 This article is categorized under: Philosophy > Consciousness Neuroscience > Cognition
The stimulus‐independent nature of consciousness. (a) Regions of the default mode network (DMN) activate during mind wandering. (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2013) (b) The same network shows co‐ordinated activity during wakeful rest, in the absence of any particular task. (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2009) (c) In continuous flash suppression (CFS) paradigm participants are consciously unaware of a stimulus presented to one eye as it becomes masked by another stimulus presented to the other eye. (d) In binocular and perceptual rivalry paradigms (subpanels (a) and (b), respectively), what is consciously perceived changes even though the stimulus itself remains unchanged. The effects of the two paradigms correlate in individuals (subpanels (c) and (d)). (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2013)
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Mind‐wandering paradigm, behavioral and fMRI results. (a) Participants alternate between a 0‐back task, which allows and induces mind‐wandering, and a 1‐back task, which requires constant on‐task focus. (b) Participants performing the easier, 0‐back task, have higher accuracy, lower RTs, and are less on task, as measured through online thought‐probes. (c) Key areas of the default mode network are active during periods of 0‐back task. (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2015)
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Experience sampling (ES) and neurocognitive measures. (a) The amplitude of a positive event‐related potential, the P3, as measured through EEG, is reduced during periods of off‐task thought compared to on‐task, as measured through online ES. (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2011) (b) Online ES can also be paired with pupillometry, showing larger pupil dilation in period of off‐task thought compared to on‐task. (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2013) (c) Retrospective ES shows reduced evoked responses to target stimuli during off‐task thought. (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2011) (d) Pairing of retrospective ES and pupillometry, showing a relation between mind‐wandering, reaction times and pupil dilation. (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2012)
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Refining measures of introspection. (a) Applying statistical methods such as principal component analysis to multidimensional experience sampling (MDES) data, shows that self‐generated thought has a stable internal structure. Data taken from two different samples of healthy adults (n = 87 and 64, respectively; see Refs for details of the method. (b) Metacognition for perception and memory depend on different neural substrates and are not correlated across individuals. (Reprinted with permission from Refs . Copyright 2013, 2014) (c) By combining MDES and neurocognitive measures, it is possible to investigate the neural substrates of different types of self‐generated thought, such as future‐ and past‐related thought. (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2014)
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Neuroscience > Cognition
Philosophy > Consciousness

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