Constraining the wandering mind: the role of control processes in deliberate mind-wandering

One of the puzzles associated with spontaneous thought is its association with control. Although studies suggest that we spend our time engaged in spontaneous thought [1], often thinking about issues that are likely important to us (such as our hopes for the future [2]), these experiences sometimes to occur at inappropriate times and can derail tasks that we are performing at any given moment. At the same time, we also know that these experiences can be important in processes linked to problem solving and creativity [3-5]. Together these lines of evidence suggest that understanding the role that spontaneous thought plays in our daily lives necessitates understanding how we control our spontaneous thoughts to maximise their beneficial consequences and minimise their costs.

To shed light on this issue we conducted a neuroimaging investigation that was focused on understanding the relationship between neural organisation and the capacity to control spontaneous thought in a deliberate manner. We used a measure of the level of intentionality in the thoughts that emerge in the mind-wandering state developed by Paul Seli and colleagues (for a prior example see [6]). This allowed us to characterise people on how deliberate their thinking mind-wandering was. We also described each individual in terms of their neural organisation. We used task-free functional magnetic resonance imaging to describe each individuals functional organisation, and structural magnetic resonance imaging to describe the physical structure of the brain. We were particularly interested in the interaction between two large-scale neural systems. One system is known as the default mode network and is important in experiences that depend on memory (for further details see here), and another system, known as the multi demand network, that is important for controlling thought. This network tends to be active when people perform complex abstract cognitive tasks.

Our results suggested that the tendency towards deliberate mind-wandering was associated with the co-operation between these two large scale networks [7]. We found that people who reported mind-wandering with a more deliberate focus had greater cortical thickness in regions of cortex that fell in both networks (such as the dorso-medial pre-frontal cortex). This suggests that deliberate mind-wandering may be associated with greater integrity in regions of cortex that are important for processes linked to memory as well as those linked to how we control our thoughts. We also found evidence that deliberate mind-wandering was linked to stronger functional communication between these two networks. Together these results support accounts of spontaneous cognition that emphasise the contribution of multiple neurocognitive components. More generally, these data suggest that we use many of the same neural structures to control spontaneous thought as we use to control task based processing, further underlining the value of understanding the mind-wandering state in the context of contemporary accounts of cognition.


  1. Kane, M.J., et al., For whom the mind wanders, and when: an experience-sampling study of working memory and executive control in daily life. Psychological science, 2007. 18(7): p. 614-21.
  2. Baird, B., J. Smallwood, and J.W. Schooler, Back to the future: Autobiographical planning and the functionality of mind-wandering. Consciousness and cognition, 2011.
  3. Medea, B., et al., How do we decide what to do? Resting-state connectivity patterns and components of self-generated thought linked to the development of more concrete personal goals. Experimental brain research, 2016: p. 1-13.
  4. Ruby, F.J., et al., Is self-generated thought a means of social problem solving? Front Psychol, 2013. 4: p. 962.
  5. Baird, B., et al., Inspired by distraction mind wandering facilitates creative incubation. Psychological Science, 2012: p. 0956797612446024.
  6. Seli, P., et al., On the relation of mind wandering and ADHD symptomatology. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 2015. 22(3): p. 629-636.
  7. Golchert, J., et al., Individual variation in intentionality in the mind-wandering state is reflected in the integration of the default-mode, fronto-parietal, and limbic networks. Neuroimage, 2017. 146: p. 226-235.
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