When people wakefully rest in the functional MRI scanner, their minds wander, and they engage a so-called default mode (DM) of neural processing that is relatively suppressed when attention is focused on the outside world. Accruing evidence suggests that DM brain systems activated during rest are also important for active, internally focused psychosocial mental processing, for example, when recalling personal memories, imagining the future, and feeling social emotions with moral connotations. Here the authors review evidence for the DM and relations to psychological functioning, including associations with mental health and cognitive abilities like reading comprehension and divergent thinking. This article calls for research into the dimensions of internally focused thought, ranging from free-form daydreaming and off-line consolidation to intensive, effortful abstract thinking, especially with socioemotional relevance. It is argued that the development of some socioemotional skills may be vulnerable to disruption by environmental distraction, for example, from certain educational practices or overuse of social media. The authors hypothesize that high environmental attention demands may bias youngsters to focus on the concrete, physical, and immediate aspects of social situations and self, which may be more compatible with external attention. They coin the term constructive internal reflection and advocate educational practices that promote effective balance between external attention and internal reflection.
Keywords: memory; prosocial emotion; reflection.
© The Author(s) 2012.