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Micah Allen, Jonathan Smallwood, Geraint Rees; Balancing internal and external attention: mind-wandering variability predicts error awareness. Journal of Vision 2014;14(10):330. doi: 10.1167/14.10.330.
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Spontaneous, endogenously driven fluctuations in attention are common occurrences, impacting both cognition and well-being. Such fluctuations, known as 'mind-wandering', are often treated as executive failures and recruit the default mode network (DMN). However, recent evidence suggests that task-unrelated thoughts (TUTS) can also facilitate memory, creativity, and meta-cognition. To clarify the costs and benefits of mind-wandering, we investigated TUTs during the error-awareness fMRI task (EAT). 42 participants (27 females) completed the EAT during fMRI scanning. The EAT is a visuomotor response inhibition task with color-word "Go" (e.g. the word red colored green) and "Stop" targets (the word red colored red). Participant's TUT intensity (1-7) was assessed at pseudo-random intervals. For each participant, mean stop accuracy (SA), error-awareness (EA), TUT intensity (TUTMean), and TUT variability (TUTSD) were calculated. Blood-oxygenation level dependent responses to stop accuracy, aware > unaware errors, and the parametric correlation with TUT intensity were analyzed. Multiple regression analyses with TUTmean and TUTSD as predictors for both SA and EA revealed a strong positive relationship between TUTmean and SA and between EA and TUTSD. Our fMRI analysis found a pattern of activations in the central executive network, coupled with deactivations in visual, medial prefrontal, and posterior parietal cortex. Aware > unaware errors recruited activations in anterior insula and the inferior parietal cortex. Interestingly, TUT-intensity recruited a more rostral region of medial prefrontal cortex to that deactivated during Stop trials. We replicated the link between TUTs and cognitive control, demonstrating that increases in mind-wandering relate to greater executive failure. However, we also found that error-awareness recruited DMN regions and that participants with a higher capacity for monitoring displayed greater TUT fluctuation. Fluctuating between internal and external attention may thus facilitate metacognition. Future research may determine if clinical disruption of error awareness is related to reduced TUT variability.
Meeting abstract presented at VSS 2014
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