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<p>Many powerful human emotional thoughts are generated in the absence of a precipitating event in the environment. Here, we tested whether we can decode the valence of internally driven, self-generated thoughts during task-free rest based on neural similarities with task-related affective mental states. We acquired functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data while participants generated positive and negative thoughts as part of an attribution task (Session A) and while they reported the occurrence of comparable mental states during task-free rest periods (Session B). With the use of multivariate pattern analyses (MVPA), we identified response patterns in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC) that encode the affective content of thoughts that are generated in response to an external experimental cue. Importantly, these task driven response patterns reliably predicted the occurrence of affective thoughts generated during unconstrained rest periods recorded one week apart. This demonstrates that at least certain elements of task-cued and task-free affective experiences rely on a common neural code. Furthermore, our findings reveal the role that the mOFC plays in determining the affective tone of unconstrained thoughts. More generally, our results suggest that MVPA is an important methodological tool for attempts to understand unguided subject driven mental states such as mind-wandering and daydreaming based on neural similarities with task-based experiences.</p>
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<p>When deprived of compelling perceptual input, the mind is often occupied with thoughts unrelated to the immediate environment. Previous behavioral research has shown that this self-generated task-unrelated thought (TUT), especially under non-demanding conditions, relates to cognitive capacities such as creativity, planning, and reduced temporal discounting. Despite the frequency and importance of this type of cognition, little is known about its structural brain basis. Using MRI-based cortical thickness measures in 37 participants, we were able to show that individuals with a higher tendency to engage in TUT under low-demanding conditions (but not under high-demanding conditions) show an increased thickness of medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and anterior/midcingulate cortex. Thickness of these regions also related to less temporal discounting (TD) of monetary rewards in an economic task, indicative of more patient decision-making. The findings of a shared structural substrate in mPFC and anterior/midcingulate cortex underlying both TUT and TD suggest an important role of these brain regions in supporting the self-generation of information that is unrelated to the immediate environment and which may be adaptive in nature.</p>
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This article reviews the hypothesis that mind wandering can be integrated into executive models of attention. Evidence suggests that mind wandering shares many similarities with traditional notions of executive control. When mind wandering occurs, the executive components of attention appear to shift away from the primary task, leading to failures in task performance and superficial representations of the external environment. One challenge for incorporating mind wandering into standard executive models is that it often occurs in the absence of explicit intention—a hallmark of controlled processing. However, mind wandering, like other goal-related processes, can be engaged without explicit awareness; thus, mind wandering can be seen as a goal-driven process, albeit one that is not directed toward the primary task.

Conscious experience is fluid; it rarely remains on one topic for an extended period without deviation. Its dynamic nature is illustrated by the experience of mind wandering, in which attention switches from a current task to unrelated thoughts and feelings. Studies exploring the phenomenology of mind wandering highlight the importance of its content and relation to meta-cognition in determining its functional outcomes. Examination of the information-processing demands of the mind-wandering state suggests that it involves perceptual decoupling to escape the constraints of the moment, its content arises from episodic and affective processes, and its regulation relies on executive control. Mind wandering also involves a complex balance of costs and benefits: Its association with various kinds of error underlines its cost, whereas its relationship to creativity and future planning suggest its potential value. Although essential to the stream of consciousness, various strategies may minimize the downsides of mind wandering while maintaining its productive aspects.