Assessing the Neural Correlates of Task-unrelated Thoughts during Episodic Encoding and Their Association with Subsequent Memory in Young and Older Adults

J Cogn Neurosci. 2016 Jun;28(6):826-41. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_00935. Epub 2016 Feb 4.


Recent evidence indicates that young adults frequently exhibit task-unrelated thoughts (TUTs) such as mind-wandering during episodic encoding tasks and that TUTs negatively impact subsequent memory. In the current study, we assessed age-related differences in the frequency and neural correlates of TUTs during a source memory encoding task, as well as age-related differences in the relationship between the neural correlates of TUTs and subsequent source forgetting effects (i.e., source misses). We found no age-related differences in frequency of TUTs during fMRI scanning. Moreover, TUT frequency at encoding was positively correlated with source misses at retrieval across age groups. In both age groups, brain regions including bilateral middle/superior frontal gyri and precuneus were activated to a greater extent during encoding for subsequent source misses versus source hits and during TUTs versus on-task episodes. Overall, our results reveal that, during a source memory encoding task in an fMRI environment, young and older adults exhibit a similar frequency of TUTs and that experiencing TUTs at encoding is associated with decreased retrieval performance. In addition, in both age groups, experiencing TUTs at encoding is associated with increased activation in some of the same regions that exhibit subsequent source forgetting effects.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Aging / psychology*
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Linear Models
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Reaction Time
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Thinking / physiology*
  • Young Adult