Ventromedial prefrontal damage reduces mind-wandering and biases its temporal focus

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2016 Nov;11(11):1783-1791. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsw099. Epub 2016 Jul 21.


Mind-wandering, an ubiquitous expression of humans' mental life, reflects a drift of attention away from the current task towards self-generated thoughts, and has been associated with activity in the brain default network. To date, however, little is understood about the contribution of individual nodes of this network to mind-wandering. Here, we investigated whether the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) is critically involved in mind-wandering, by studying the propensity to mind-wander in patients with lesion to the vmPFC (vmPFC patients), control patients with lesions not involving the vmPFC, and healthy individuals. Participants performed three tasks varying in cognitive demands while their thoughts were periodically sampled, and a self-report scale of daydreaming in daily life. vmPFC patients exhibited reduced mind-wandering rates across tasks, and claimed less frequent daydreaming, than both healthy and brain-damaged controls. vmPFC damage reduced off-task thoughts related to the future, while it promoted those about the present. These results indicate that vmPFC critically supports mind-wandering, possibly by helping to construct future-related scenarios and thoughts that have the potential to draw attention inward, away from the ongoing tasks.

Keywords: default mode network; mental time travel; mind-wandering; ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aneurysm, Ruptured / physiopathology*
  • Aneurysm, Ruptured / psychology
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Brain Damage, Chronic / physiopathology*
  • Brain Damage, Chronic / psychology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Dominance, Cerebral / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Intracranial Aneurysm / physiopathology*
  • Intracranial Aneurysm / psychology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nerve Net / physiopathology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Stroke / physiopathology*
  • Stroke / psychology
  • Thinking / physiology*