A role for the ventromedial prefrontal cortex in self-generated episodic social cognition

Delali Konu*, Adam Turnbull, Theodoros Karapanagiotidis, Hao Ting Wang, Lydia Rebecca Brown, Elizabeth Jefferies, Jonathan Smallwood

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The human mind is equally fluent in thoughts that involve self-generated mental content as it is with information in the immediate environment. Previous research has shown that neural systems linked to executive control (i.e. the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) are recruited when perceptual and self-generated thoughts are balanced in line with the demands imposed by the external world. Contemporary theories (Smallwood and Schooler, 2015) assume that differentiable processes are important for self-generated mental content than for its regulation. The current study used functional magnetic resonance imaging in combination with multidimensional experience sampling to address this possibility. We used a task with minimal demands to maximise our power at identifying correlates of self-generated states. Principal component analysis showed consistent patterns of self-generated thought when participants performed the task in either the lab or in the scanner (ICC ranged from 0.68 to 0.86). In a whole brain analyses we found that neural activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vMPFC) increases when participants are engaged in experiences which emphasise episodic and socio-cognitive features. Our study suggests that neural activity in the vMPFC is linked to patterns of ongoing thought, particularly those with episodic or social features.

Original languageEnglish
Article number116977
Number of pages6
Early online date22 May 2020
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2020

Bibliographical note

©2020 The Author(s).


  • Memory
  • Ongoing thought
  • Ventromedial prefrontal cortex

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