Understanding the wandering mind | Jonny Smallwood

On the 6th of July a large number of my collaborators and I descended on The Hub at Wellcome Collection to jointly consider progress made in the exploration of the mind-wandering state in terms of its experiential content, neural basis and cultural and functional significance. The workshop brought together psychologists and researchers from a range of disciplines, including the social sciences and the arts. From the perspective of a scientist who has worked in this area it was an amazing opportunity to see just how far the discipline has come in the last decade. It felt like a watershed moment in the understanding of the way that spontaneous thought works. One of the points of discussion that made the meeting so special was the way that different research traditions have begun to converge on this question. For example, the work of two of my closest colleagues (Beth Jefferies and Daniel Margulies) illustrate how this convergence can work in practice.

I’ll start by looking at Beth Jefferies, whose work on semantic knowledge began with a neuropsychological exploration of the deficits that occur through damage to different cortical regions, focusing on cases of semantic dementia and semantic aphasia. The work of Beth and her colleagues has converged on a model of semantic knowledge that emphasises both how the mind represents conceptual information and how this information can be used in the service of different goals. This account of semantic processing provides an excellent candidate account of the internal mechanics of thought – not least because the elegant work conducted by Beth and others has provided a very detailed understanding of how thoughts emerge and are controlled – and this highly detailed account complements the less specified accounts that exist to describe the mind-wandering state. This synthesis between the mind-wandering state and conceptual processing is an interesting development in my work and one that I am really excited about.

The work of Daniel Margulies, on the other hand, has helped provide a detailed account of the functional architecture within the mind-wandering state. Daniel’s work has developed several important methods for determining how structure and function are related. In particular,​ his work has provided a nuanced understanding of the cortical evolution that has allowed the brain to develop the capacity to perform computations that are decoupled from inputs key to the mind-wandering state. A key aspect of Daniel’s research that makes it appealing to me as a view within which to understand the mind-wandering state is that it focuses on how the topographical organisation of the different large scale network can help constrain the specific functions it performs. To a researcher looking at the mind-wandering state who has emphasised that this experience needs to be understood as a corollary of the way that thinking emerges in the context of more external or goal orientated states, the architectural constraints on function is an exciting development in understanding the mind-wandering state, not as an isolated experiential state, but as an emergent property of a neural system that deals flexibly with both internal and external tasks.

Another highlight of the day was the range of excellent work by the many people working on mind-wandering, both with me in the Department of Psychology at University of York, and elsewhere. The talks given by the various participants were exciting, not only because they provided important evidence on how interesting the mind-wandering state is, but also because of the enthusiasm and engagement that this group of young researchers brought to the day. As a veteran researcher in this field, what was perhaps the most exciting aspect of the day at The Hub was that the future of mind-wandering is in good hands.

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