Mind-wandering and metacognition: variation between internal and external thought predicts improved error awareness

by Neuroconscience

Yesterday I published my first paper on mind-wandering and metacognition, with Jonny Smallwood, Antoine Lutz, and collaborators. This was a fun project for me as I spent much of my PhD exhaustively reading the literature on mind-wandering and default mode activity, resulting in a lot of intense debate a my research center. When we had Jonny over as an opponent at my PhD defense, the chance to collaborate was simply too good to pass up. Mind-wandering is super interesting precisely because we do it so often. One of my favourite anecdotes comes from around the time I was arguing heavily for the role of the default mode in spontaneous cognition to some very skeptical colleagues.  The next day while waiting to cross the street, one such colleague rode up next to me on his bicycle and joked, “are you thinking about the default mode?” And indeed I was – meta-mind-wandering!

One thing that has really bothered me about much of the mind-wandering literature is how frequently it is presented as attention = good, mind-wandering = bad. Can you imagine how unpleasant it would be if we never mind-wandered? Just picture trying to solve a difficult task while being totally 100% focused. This kind of hyper-locking attention can easily become pathological, preventing us from altering course when our behaviour goes awry or when something internal needs to be adjusted. Mind-wandering serves many positive purposes, from stimulating our imaginations, to motivating us in boring situations with internal rewards (boring task… “ahhhh remember that nice mojito you had on the beach last year?”). Yet we largely see papers exploring the costs – mood deficits, cognitive control failure, and so on. In the meditation literature this has even been taken up to form the misguided idea that meditation should reduce or eliminate mind-wandering (even though there is almost zero evidence to this effect…)

Sometimes our theories end up reflecting our methodological apparatus, to the extent that they may not fully capture reality. I think this is part of what has happened with mind-wandering, which was originally defined in relation to difficult (and boring) attention tasks. Worse, mind-wandering is usually operationalized as a dichotomous state (“offtask” vs “ontask”) when a little introspection seems to strongly suggest it is much more of a fuzzy, dynamic transition between meta-cognitive and sensory processes. By studying mind-wandering just as the ‘amount’ (or mean) number of times you were “offtask”, we’re taking the stream of consciousness and acting as if the ‘depth’ at one point in the river is the entire story – but what about flow rate, tidal patterns, fishies, and all the dynamic variability that define the river? My idea was that one simple way get at this is by looking at the within-subject variability of mind-wandering, rather than just the overall mean “rate”.  In this way we could get some idea of the extent to which a person’s mind-wandering was fluctuating over time, rather than just categorising these events dichotomously.

The EAT task used in my study, with thought probes.

The EAT task used in my study, with thought probes.

To do this, we combined a classical meta-cognitive response inhibition paradigm, the “error awareness task” (pictured above), with standard interleaved “thought-probes” asking participants to rate on a scale of 1-7 the “subjective frequency” of task-unrelated thoughts in the task interval prior to the probe.  We then examined the relationship between the ability to perform the task or “stop accuracy” and each participant’s mean task-unrelated thought (TUT). Here we expected to replicate the well-established relationship between TUTs and attention decrements (after all, it’s difficult to inhibit your behaviour if you are thinking about the hunky babe you saw at the beach last year!). We further examined if the standard deviation of TUT (TUT variability) within each participant would predict error monitoring, reflecting a relationship between metacognition and increased fluctuation between internal and external cognition (after all, isn’t that kind of the point of metacognition?). Of course for specificity and completeness, we conducted each multiple regression analysis with the contra-variable as control predictors. Here is the key finding from the paper:

Regression analysis of TUT, TUT variability, stop accuracy, and error awareness.

Regression analysis of TUT, TUT variability, stop accuracy, and error awareness.

As you can see in the bottom right, we clearly replicated the relationship of increased overall TUT predicting poorer stop performance. Individuals who report an overall high intensity/frequency of mind-wandering unsurprisingly commit more errors. What was really interesting, however, was that the more variable a participants’ mind-wandering, the greater error-monitoring capacity (top left). This suggests that individuals who show more fluctuation between internally and externally oriented attention may be able to better enjoy the benefits of mind-wandering while simultaneously limiting its costs. Of course, these are only individual differences (i.e. correlations) and should be treated as highly preliminary. It is possible for example that participants who use more of the TUT scale have higher meta-cognitive ability in general, rather than the two variables being causally linked in the way we suggest.  We are careful to raise these and other limitations in the paper, but I do think this finding is a nice first step.

To ‘probe’ a bit further we looked at the BOLD responses to correct stops, and the parametric correlation of task-related BOLD with the TUT ratings:

Activations during correct stop trials.

Activations during correct stop trials.

Deactivations to stop trials (blue) and parametric correlation with TUT reports (red)

Deactivations to stop trials (blue) and parametric correlation with TUT reports (red)

As you can see, correct stop trials elicit a rather canonical activation pattern on the motor-inhibition and salience networks, with concurrent deactivations in visual cortex and the default mode network (second figure, blue blobs). I think of this pattern a bit like when the brain receives the ‘stop signal’ it goes, (a la Picard): “FULL STOP, MAIN VIEWER OFF, FIRE THE PHOTON TORPEDOS!”, launching into full response recovery mode. Interestingly, while we replicated the finding of medial-prefrontal co-variation with TUTS (second figure, red blob), this area was substantially more rostral than the stop-related deactivations, supporting previous findings of some degree of functional segregation between the inhibitory and mind-wandering related components of the DMN.

Finally, when examining the Aware > Unaware errors contrast, we replicated the typical salience network activations (mid-cingulate and anterior insula). Interestingly we also found strong bilateral activations in an area of the inferior parietal cortex also considered to be a part of the default mode. This finding further strengthens the link between mind-wandering and metacognition, indicating that the salience and default mode network may work in concert during conscious error awareness:

Activations to Aware > Unaware errors contrast.

Activations to Aware > Unaware errors contrast.

In all, this was a very valuable and fun study for me. As a PhD student being able to replicate the function of classic “executive, salience, and default mode” ‘resting state’ networks with a basic task was a great experience, helping me place some confidence in these labels.  I was also able to combine a classical behavioral metacognition task with some introspective thought probes, and show that they do indeed contain valuable information about task performance and related brain processes. Importantly though, we showed that the ‘content’ of the mind-wandering reports doesn’t tell the whole story of spontaneous cognition. In the future I would like to explore this idea further, perhaps by taking a time series approach to probe the dynamics of mind-wandering, using a simple continuous feedback device that participants could use throughout an experiment. In the affect literature such devices have been used to probe the dynamics of valence-arousal when participants view naturalistic movies, and I believe such an approach could reveal even greater granularity in how the experience of mind-wandering (and it’s fluctuation) interacts with cognition. Our findings suggest that the relationship between mind-wandering and task performance may be more nuanced than mere antagonism, an important finding I hope to explore in future research.

Citation: Allen M, Smallwood J, Christensen J, Gramm D, Rasmussen B, Jensen CG, Roepstorff A and Lutz A (2013) The balanced mind: the variability of task-unrelated thoughts predicts error monitoringFront. Hum. Neurosci7:743. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00743