The neural basis of Mind Wandering

The neural basis of Mind Wandering

We all experience moments of inattention when, seemingly, our mind has wandered to a different place entirely. We have “tuned out” of our current activity, we are “day-dreaming”, experiencing an “attentional lapse” or, as scientific folk likes to call it, are engaging in “task-unrelated thoughts”. But what happens in our brain during these periods of inattention? Are we always aware that we are actually dreaming with open eyes?

In our study of this phenomenon, we make use of a wide variety of techniques and tools. We use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map the networks in the brain that are related to periods of inattention. In a recent study (Mittner et al, 2014), we found that communication within and between resting-state networks (groups of brain regions that are consistenly activated during periods of rest) plays a key role in this. We also apply the electroencephalogram (EEG) and pupillometry to get further insights into the involved neural mechanisms.

This figure shows how we integrate different measures to detect and analyse periods of mind wandering. Using such an approach, we could actually achieve a detection rate of close to 80%.

This project is carried out in a close collaboration with Birte Forstmann’s lab at the university of Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

Related Publications:

Mittner, M., Boekel, W., Tucker, A. M., Turner, B. M., Heathcote, A., & Forstmann, B. U. (2014). When the Brain Takes a Break: A Model-Based Analysis of Mind Wandering. Journal of Neuroscience, 34(49), 16286–16295.
  • Mittner, M., Boekel, W., Tucker, A. M., Turner, B.M., Heathcote, A. and Forstmann, B.U.(2014). When the brain takes a break: A model-based analysis of mind wandering. Journal of Neuroscience[link]
  • Mittner, M. (2013). Functional Integration of Large-Scale Brain Networks. The Journal of Neuroscience, 33(48):18710-18711 [link]

Related student projects:

  • Iselin Finn and Anna Elfrida Vollsund (2018) “Effectiveness of HD-tDCS on influencing executive control during mind wandering” (
  • Ingrid Marie Skjerstad (2017) “The wandering mind of the long-distance runner”
  • Ida Marie Opdal (MSc, 2015): Wandering body, wandering mind? The relationship between bodily movement, creativity and mind-wandering.
  • Christian Fossheim (BSc, 2015): Valence of Facial Expressed Emotions in a Wandering Mind

Open projects for interested students!

If you interested in doing research for your Bachelor or Master-thesis in our lab, just contact Matthias Mittner.

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