The Neuroscience of Spontaneous Thought: An Evolving, Interdisciplinary Field

In Fox Kieran & Christoff Kieran (eds.), Oxford Handbook of Spontaneous Thought and Creativity. Oxford University Press (forthcoming)
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Abstract

An often-overlooked characteristic of the human mind is its propensity to wander.  Despite growing interest in the science of mind-wandering, most studies operationalize mind-wandering by its task-unrelated contents.  But these contents may be orthogonal to the processes that determine how thoughts unfold over time, remaining stable or wandering from one topic to another. In this chapter, we emphasize the importance of incorporating such processes into current definitions of mind-wandering, and propose that mind-wandering and other forms of spontaneous thought (such as dreaming and creativity) are mental states that arise and transition relatively freely due to an absence of constraints on cognition. We review existing psychological, philosophical and neuroscientific research on spontaneous thought through the lens of this framework, and call for additional research into the dynamic properties of the mind and brain.

Author's Profile

Zachary C. Irving
University of Virginia

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