Lost in thoughts: neural markers of low alertness during mind wandering

Neuroimage. 2011 Feb 14;54(4):3040-7. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.10.008. Epub 2010 Oct 12.


During concentration tasks, spontaneous attention shifts occurs towards self-centered matters. Little is known about the brain oscillatory activity underlying these mental phenomena. We recorded 128-channels electroencephalographic activity from 12 subjects performing a breath-counting task. Subjects were instructed to press a button whenever, based on their introspective experience, they realized their attention had drifted away from the task. Theta (4-7 Hz) and delta (2-3.5 Hz) EEG activity increased during mind wandering whereas alpha (9-11 Hz) and beta (15-30 Hz) decreased. A passive auditory oddball protocol was presented to the subjects to test brain-evoked responses to perceptual stimuli during mind wandering. Mismatch negativity evoked at 100 ms after oddball stimuli onset decreased during mind wandering whereas the brain-evoked responses at 200 ms after stimuli onset increased. Spectral analyses and evoked related potential results suggest decreased alertness and sensory processing during mind wandering. To our knowledge, our experiment is one of the first neuro-imaging studies that relies purely on subjects' introspective judgment, and shows that such judgment may be used to contrast different brain activity patterns.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Interpretation, Computer-Assisted
  • Male
  • Thinking / physiology*
  • Young Adult