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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Neural activation associated with the reporting of spontaneous thoughts in experienced mindfulness meditators Zamani, Andre Reza


Thoughts are pervasive in our conscious experience, arising from sources of deliberate intention, habitual pattern, or even out of the blue. Thoughts of the lattermost category, referred to as spontaneous thoughts, have become the subject of a growing number of experimental investigations. An aspect of spontaneous thought that has remained difficult to study is the neural mechanisms supporting their initial generation. This is largely due to how the generation of spontaneous thoughts is neither deliberate nor conscious, making it difficult to collect self-report data as to their timing. However, past research has shown it is possible to use self-reports about the conscious onset of spontaneous thoughts as a benchmark for analyzing neural activations in the time before their conscious onset. This depends, however, on participants being able to report on a thought’s arising both quickly and accurately. Experienced mindfulness meditators have proven a useful participant sample to use when conducting such research, given their extensive practice in noting the arising of subtle mental events into conscious experience. Picking up where previous research left off, the present thesis examined the neural correlates of spontaneous thought by combining self-reports made by a sample of experienced mindfulness meditators with neural measurements collected via fMRI. Participants were instructed to report on the initial arising of spontaneous thoughts into their conscious experience, allowing us to analyze neural activations in the time leading up to their reports when the mechanisms supporting thought generation are believed to unfold. Unlike previous research, we did not observe neural activation associated with generation in the time leading up to participants self-reports. We instead observed widespread neural activation across brain systems involved in task monitoring, decision making, action planning, and semantic processing. These results suggest participants may have had difficulty reporting on the arising of spontaneous thoughts and thus relied upon semantic decision-making to evaluate their experience more rigorously. This raises the possibility that information about internal states, like thoughts, is at least partially stored as semantic knowledge. Our findings also provide important methodological guidelines to consider in future research examining the onset of subtle mental events.

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