Neurocognitive patterns dissociating semantic processing from executive control are linked to more detailed off-task mental time travel

Hao Ting Wang*, Nerissa Siu Ping Ho, Danilo Bzdok, Boris C. Bernhardt, Daniel S. Margulies, Elizabeth Jefferies, Jonathan Smallwood

*Corresponding author for this work

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Features of ongoing experience are common across individuals and cultures. However, certain people express specific patterns of thought to a greater extent than others. Contemporary psychological theory assumes that individual differences in thought patterns occur because different types of experience depend on the expression of different neurocognitive processes. Consequently, individual variation in the underlying neurocognitive architecture is hypothesised to determine the ease with which certain thought patterns are generated or maintained. Our study (N = 178) tested this hypothesis using multivariate pattern analysis to infer shared variance among measures of cognitive function and neural organisation and examined whether these latent variables explained reports of the patterns of on-going thoughts people experienced in the lab. We found that relatively better performance on tasks relying primarily on semantic knowledge, rather than executive control, was linked to a neural functional organisation associated, via meta-analysis, with task labels related to semantic associations (sentence processing, reading and verbal semantics). Variability of this functional mode predicted significant individual variation in the types of thoughts that individuals experienced in the laboratory: neurocognitive patterns linked to better performance at tasks that required guidance from semantic representation, rather than those dependent on executive control, were associated with patterns of thought characterised by greater subjective detail and a focus on time periods other than the here and now. These relationships were consistent across different days and did not vary with level of task demands, indicating they are relatively stable features of an individual’s cognitive profile. Together these data confirm that individual variation in aspects of ongoing experience can be inferred from hidden neurocognitive architecture and demonstrate that performance trade-offs between executive control and long-term semantic knowledge are linked to a person’s tendency to imagine situations that transcend the here and now.

Original languageEnglish
Article number11904
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Early online date17 Jul 2020
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 17 Jul 2020

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© The Author(s) 2020

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