Toward a model-based cognitive neuroscience of mind wandering

Neuroscience. 2015 Dec 3;310:290-305. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2015.09.053. Epub 2015 Sep 28.


People often "mind wander" during everyday tasks, temporarily losing track of time, place, or current task goals. In laboratory-based tasks, mind wandering is often associated with performance decrements in behavioral variables and changes in neural recordings. Such empirical associations provide descriptive accounts of mind wandering - how it affects ongoing task performance - but fail to provide true explanatory accounts - why it affects task performance. In this perspectives paper, we consider mind wandering as a neural state or process that affects the parameters of quantitative cognitive process models, which in turn affect observed behavioral performance. Our approach thus uses cognitive process models to bridge the explanatory divide between neural and behavioral data. We provide an overview of two general frameworks for developing a model-based cognitive neuroscience of mind wandering. The first approach uses neural data to segment observed performance into a discrete mixture of latent task-related and task-unrelated states, and the second regresses single-trial measures of neural activity onto structured trial-by-trial variation in the parameters of cognitive process models. We discuss the relative merits of the two approaches, and the research questions they can answer, and highlight that both approaches allow neural data to provide additional constraint on the parameters of cognitive models, which will lead to a more precise account of the effect of mind wandering on brain and behavior. We conclude by summarizing prospects for mind wandering as conceived within a model-based cognitive neuroscience framework, highlighting the opportunities for its continued study and the benefits that arise from using well-developed quantitative techniques to study abstract theoretical constructs.

Keywords: mind wandering; mixture model; model-based cognitive neuroscience; sequential sampling model; single-trial regression; task-unrelated thoughts.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Attention / physiology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Decision Making / physiology
  • Humans
  • Imagination / physiology*
  • Markov Chains
  • Models, Neurological
  • Thinking / physiology*