How good are we at knowing what we are thinking? Do we just know what we are conscious of because we have a memory of it that we can inspect? An interesting paper (citation below) examines our awareness of our mind wanderings. It seems that we often just miss the wandering entirely. So if I am concentrating on something and my mind periodically wanders off what I am trying to attend to then wanders back and I don’t notice – what does that say about my awareness of my ‘awareness’. (Of course I’m not aware of my blinks either.) By asking probing questions during tasks, it is possible to have subjects accurately report any mind wandering if it is happening. Or subjects can be asked to indicate when they notice mind wandering and this results in many mind wanderings being missed.



Why is mind wandering so easy to report but so difficult to spontaneously notice?


Converging evidence from behavioral, neurocognitive and combined paradigms indicate that, when prompted, people can accurately report whether or not they are mind wandering. By contrast, the spontaneous noticing of mind wandering, as assessed using both the self-caught/probe-caught methodology and retrospective classifications, indicates that individuals routinely mind wander without noticing this fact. A contributing factor to difficulties in noticing mind wandering may be that the experience can hijack the very brain regions that are necessary for recognizing its occurrence. Many of the brain regions engaged during mind wandering are implicated in systems that might be expected to contribute to the monitoring of the state itself. Accordingly, our persistent failure to catch ourselves mind wandering could occur because mind wandering occupies the precise brain regions that are necessary for noticing it. The hijacking of the following two processes could contribute to difficulties in noticing mind wandering.


1. Mental state attribution


Elements of the medial PFC (prefrontal cortex) are recruited both during mind wandering and in tasks that require theory of mind. Because mental state attribution involves the application of metacognitive processes to information of a stimulus-independent nature (e.g. inferences about the mental state of another individual), the engagement of these brain regions during SIT (stimulus-independent thoughts) could prohibit their utility in the service of catching the wandering mind.


2. Cognitive control


Periods of mind wandering also engage regions such as the dorsal ACC (anterior cingulate cortex ), which are known to be involved in error detection and conflict monitoring, and the anterior PFC, involved in cognitive meta-awareness. If mind wandering engages both metacognition and error-detection systems in the service of generating a coherent stream of SIT, then the fact that these systems are already engaged might make them less capable of detecting a mind-wandering episode. ”

J Schooler, J Smallwood, K Christoff, T Handy, E Reichle, M Sayette (2011). Meta-awareness, perceptual decoupling and the wandering mind Trands in Cognitive Sciences, 15 (7) : 10.1016/j.tics.2011.05.006

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