The brain on silent: mind wandering, mindful awareness, and states of mental tranquility

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Abstract

Mind wandering and mindfulness are often described as divergent mental states with opposing effects on cognitive performance and mental health. Spontaneous mind wandering is typically associated with self-reflective states that contribute to negative processing of the past, worrying/fantasizing about the future, and disruption of primary task performance. On the other hand, mindful awareness is frequently described as a focus on present sensory input without cognitive elaboration or emotional reactivity, and is associated with improved task performance and decreased stress-related symptomology. Unfortunately, such distinctions fail to acknowledge similarities and interactions between the two states. Instead of an inverse relationship between mindfulness and mind wandering, a more nuanced characterization of mindfulness may involve skillful toggling back and forth between conceptual and nonconceptual processes and networks supporting each state, to meet the contextually specified demands of the situation. In this article, we present a theoretical analysis and plausible neurocognitive framework of the restful mind, in which we attempt to clarify potentially adaptive contributions of both mind wandering and mindful awareness through the lens of the extant neurocognitive literature on intrinsic network activity, meditation, and emerging descriptions of stillness and nonduality. A neurophenomenological approach to probing modality-specific forms of concentration and nonconceptual awareness is presented that may improve our understanding of the resting state. Implications for future research are discussed.

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