Mind Wandering and the Hierarchical Control of Neurocognitive Function
Todd Handy
University of British Columbia

Mind wandering refers to the natural tendency of our thoughts to transiently drift off-task despite no apparent conscious intent to do so. Over the last several years, there has been intense interest in understanding both the qualitative content of off-task thoughts during periods of mind wandering, as well as the extent to which mind wandering states are associated with activation of the so-called “default” network in cortex. In my talk I will focus on a third, less-appreciated aspect of mind wandering, and in particular, the superordinate controlling influence it has on a wide spectrum of neurocognitive functions. Through a series of ERP and behavioral studies my colleagues and I have been conducting, we have found that mind wandering significantly attenuates the sensory and cognitive processing of external inputs, the orienting of selective attention, the depth of affective processing, and the efficacy of on-line motor control and adaptive performance monitoring. Moreover, we appear to mind wander less as we age, which we suggest may be a compensatory response to help combat age-related declines in neurocognitive function. Collectively, our findings support hierarchical models of cortical control stemming from systems theory, which stipulates that the functional stability of complex systems is enhanced by having multiple controlling inputs operating at different scales of time.