Facing up to why the wandering mind: Patterns of off-task laboratory thought are associated with stronger neural recruitment of right fusiform cortex while processing facial stimuli

Nerissa Siu Ping Ho*, Giulia Poerio, Delali Konu, Adam Turnbull, Mladen Sormaz, Robert Leech, Boris Bernhardt, Elizabeth Jefferies, Jonathan Smallwood

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Human cognition is not always tethered to events in the external world. Laboratory and real world experience sampling studies reveal that attention is often devoted to self-generated mental content rather than to events taking place in the immediate environment. Recent studies have begun to explicitly examine the consistency between states of off-task thought in the laboratory and in daily life, highlighting differences in the psychological correlates of these states across the two contexts. Our study used neuroimaging to further understand the generalizability of off-task thought across laboratory and daily life contexts. We examined (1) whether context (daily life versus laboratory) impacts on individuals’ off-task thought patterns and whether individual variations in these patterns are correlated across contexts; (2) whether neural correlates for the patterns of off-task thoughts in the laboratory show similarities with those thoughts in daily life, in particular, whether differences in cortical grey matter associated with detail and off-task thoughts in the para-hippocampus, identified in a prior study on laboratory thoughts, were apparent in real life thought patterns. We also measured neural responses to common real-world stimuli (faces and scenes) and examined how neural responses to these stimuli were related to experiences in the laboratory and in daily life - finding evidence of both similarities and differences. There were consistent patterns of off-task thoughts reported across the two contexts, and both patterns had a commensurate relationship with medial temporal lobe architecture. However, compared to real world off-task thoughts, those in the laboratory focused more on social content and showed a stronger correlation with neural activity when viewing faces compared to scenes. Overall our results show that off-task thought patterns have broad similarities in the laboratory and in daily life, and the apparent differences may be, in part, driven by the richer environmental context in the real world. More generally, our findings are broadly consistent with emerging evidence that shows off-task thoughts emerge through the prioritisation of information that has greater personal relevance than events in the here and now.

Original languageEnglish
Article number116765
Number of pages13
Early online date27 Mar 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2020

Bibliographical note

© 2020 The Authors


  • Face processing
  • Fusiform cortex
  • Mind-wandering
  • Off-task thought
  • Real-world neuroscience
  • Vivid detailed experience

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