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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The neurocognitive consequences of the wandering mind : a mechanistic account of sensory-motor decoupling Kam, Julia


One unique characteristic of humans is our ability to mind wander – a state in which we engage in thoughts that are not directly tied to sensations from our surrounding environment. The Executive Function Model of mind wandering proposed the decoupling of our executive resources from the external environment is what facilitates the maintenance of these internal trains of thoughts. Accordingly, my dissertation aims to characterize how our neurocognitive processing of external stimuli waxes and wanes as our minds wander away from the task-at-hand. I present three sets of studies in this dissertation, each examining one specific aspect of neurocognitive engagement with the external environment, namely affective processing, behavioral performance monitoring, and attentional processing. Consistent with the Executive Function Model, my research indicates all three types of neurocognitive processing were attenuated during mind wandering episodes. This suggests mind wandering appears to disengage executive resources from our environment and direct them to inner streams of thoughts via this wide-ranging neurocognitive attenuation. One exception to this global pattern of attenuation of external processing is the detection of external stimuli that deviates from our expectations. Taken together, these observations suggest our ability to transiently decouple our thoughts from the external environment is integral to normal human neurocognitive functioning. A deeper understanding of this phenomenon may therefore inform strategies for regulating this mental experience so as to maximize their utility, and minimize their detrimental effects on our daily functioning and well-being.

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