Internal and external attention and the default mode network

Neuroimage. 2017 Mar 1;148:381-389. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.01.044. Epub 2017 Jan 18.


Focused attention meditations have been shown to improve psychological health and wellbeing and are nowadays an integral part of many psychotherapies. While research on the neural correlates of focused attention meditation is increasing, findings vary on whether meditations are associated with high or low activity in the default mode network (DMN). To clarify the relationship between focused attention meditation and the activity in DMN regions, it may be helpful to distinguish internal and external attention as well as different phases within one meditation: During focused attention meditation, the practitioner switches between mindful attention, mind-wandering and refocusing. Here, we employed a thought-probe paradigm to study the neural correlates of these different phases. Twenty healthy, meditation naïve participants were introduced to external (mindfulness of sound) and internal (mindfulness of breathing) attention meditation and then practiced the meditation at home for four consecutive days. They then performed the same focused attention meditations during fMRI scanning, in four runs alternating between internal and external attention. At pseudorandom intervals, participants were asked whether they had just been focused on the task (mindful attention) or had been distracted (mind-wandering). During mindful attention, brain regions typically associated with the DMN, such as the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex and left temporoparietal junction showed significantly less neural activation compared to mind-wandering phases. Reduced activity of the DMN was found during both external and internal attention, with stronger deactivation in the posterior cingulate cortex during internal attention compared to external attention. Moreover, refocusing after mind-wandering was associated with activity in the left inferior frontal gyrus. Our results support the theory that mindful attention is associated with reduced DMN activity compared to mind-wandering, independent of the practitioner's attention focus (i.e., internal vs. external).

Keywords: Attention; Default mode network; Functional MRI; Mind-wandering; Mindfulness; Thought-probes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Auditory Perception
  • Brain Mapping
  • Female
  • Healthy Volunteers
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Meditation
  • Middle Aged
  • Mindfulness*
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Respiration
  • Thalamus / physiology
  • Thinking / physiology
  • Young Adult