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Review
. 2016 Jun;1373(1):96-113.
doi: 10.1111/nyas.13171.

The Brain on Silent: Mind Wandering, Mindful Awareness, and States of Mental Tranquility

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Free PMC article
Review

The Brain on Silent: Mind Wandering, Mindful Awareness, and States of Mental Tranquility

David R Vago et al. Ann N Y Acad Sci. .
Free PMC article

Abstract

Mind wandering and mindfulness are often described as divergent mental states with opposing effects on cognitive performance and mental health. Spontaneous mind wandering is typically associated with self-reflective states that contribute to negative processing of the past, worrying/fantasizing about the future, and disruption of primary task performance. On the other hand, mindful awareness is frequently described as a focus on present sensory input without cognitive elaboration or emotional reactivity, and is associated with improved task performance and decreased stress-related symptomology. Unfortunately, such distinctions fail to acknowledge similarities and interactions between the two states. Instead of an inverse relationship between mindfulness and mind wandering, a more nuanced characterization of mindfulness may involve skillful toggling back and forth between conceptual and nonconceptual processes and networks supporting each state, to meet the contextually specified demands of the situation. In this article, we present a theoretical analysis and plausible neurocognitive framework of the restful mind, in which we attempt to clarify potentially adaptive contributions of both mind wandering and mindful awareness through the lens of the extant neurocognitive literature on intrinsic network activity, meditation, and emerging descriptions of stillness and nonduality. A neurophenomenological approach to probing modality-specific forms of concentration and nonconceptual awareness is presented that may improve our understanding of the resting state. Implications for future research are discussed.

Keywords: awareness; meditation; mind wandering; mindfulness; resting state.

Conflict of interest statement

Conflicts of interest: The authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Figures

Figure 1
Figure 1
Variations in awareness during meditation and mind-wandering rest. Visual (V), auditory (A), and somatic (S) modalities of experience are depicted. Awareness in the present moment is depicted by the blue band around mental objects arising and passing through time. Width of the band represents the temporal focus of awareness. The more temporally extended awareness is in time, the more mental stickiness and disengagement delays are apparent. Wider bands refer to difficulty disengaging from mental or sensory objects, greater projection into past or future experience, and a resulting smaller aperture. FA meditation focuses on only one mental/physical object in experience (somatic object is depicted here). All modalities of experience enter awareness in OM meditation and mind wandering (MW). Variations in qualities of object orientation (engagement/disengagement), clarity, and aperture in experience are depicted. These three qualities are represented, respectively, by the width of the circles for each mental object, brightness of the fill color, and diameter of the ring of awareness that sits in the present moment of time. Adept meditators are believed to experience higher clarity (phenomenal intensity) in both forms of meditation, whereas MW is believed to represent low clarity or dullness. Low object orientation or engagement represents less mental stickiness and rapid disengagement, leaving available more cognitive resources. Aperture (scope of awareness) is believed to be intentionally narrow for a concentration practice and high for OM practice. In MW, the spotlight of attention is typically narrow and unintentional because of increased engagement with each mental object; resources are subsequently depleted. Adapted, with permission, from Farb et al. and Lutz et al. See Lutz et al. for more extensive descriptions of clarity and aperture, as well as for other potential experiential descriptors relevant to mindfulness.
Figure 2
Figure 2
RSN partition and global fc variability of other networks with the frontoparietal network (FPN). (A) Shown is the network partition of 264 putative functional regions in 10 major RSNs identified at rest through independent component analysis. (B) The connectivity between the FPN and all other RSNs and associated mean variable connectivity are shown. The FPN is believed to act as a hub to enhance connectivity between all other RSNs. Adapted, with permission, from Cole et al.
Figure 3
Figure 3
Comparison between mind wandering and OM meditation. Evaluative processes and associated DMN activity process visual, auditory, and somatic modalities and inhibit FPCN, VAN, and DAN attentional networks from gaining meta-awareness. The VAN (vlPFC and TPJ) is critical for reorienting, while the DAN (FEF and IPS) is critical for sustaining attention. Mind wandering and OM meditation process the same inputs (visual, auditory, somatic). OM has increased activation of attentional networks and flexible switching between networks. Mind wandering has less connectivity across networks and therefore lacks the meta-awareness to detect unintentional self-reflective or evaluative processing. The FPCN not only acts as a hub for detecting irrelevant mind wandering, but also for facilitating rapid discernment and evaluation when contextually appropriate. Thickness of lines represents proposed strength of connectivity between networks. SMA/PMA, supplementary and premotor areas; IPS, inferior parietal sulcus; pIPL/aIPL, posterior/anterior inferior parietal lobe; PI, posterior insula; AI, anterior insula; dmPFC, dorsomedial prefrontal cortex; vmPFC, ventromedial prefrontal cortex; r/dACC, rostral/ dACC cortex; S1, primary sensory cortex; PCC, posterior cingulate cortex; RSP, retrosplenial cortex; FPCN, frontoparietal control network; VAN, ventral attention network; DAN, dorsal attention network; FEF, frontal eye field; FPC, frontopolar cortex; dlPFC, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex; vlPFC, ventrolateral prefrontal cortex; MT+, middle temporal visual area; TPJ, temporoparietal junction; RSP, retrosplenial cortex; sc, superior colliculus; sgACC, subgenual anterior cingulate cortex; HF, hippocampal formation.
Figure 4
Figure 4
Brain potentials from electrode Pz, time-locked to T1 onset on short-interval trials (220–440 ms) as a function of session, T2 accuracy, and group. Selective reduction in T1-elicited P3b amplitude in no-blink trials is evident in meditation practitioners. Adapted, with permission, from Slagter et al.

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