Thinking about thinking: Neural mechanisms and effects on memory

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It is a well-established finding that memory encoding is impaired if an external secondary task (e.g. tone discrimination) is performed simultaneously. Yet, while studying we are also often engaged in internal secondary tasks such as planning, ruminating, or daydreaming. It remains unclear whether such a secondary internal task has similar effects on memory and what the neural mechanisms underlying such an influence are. We therefore measured participants' blood oxygenation level dependent responses while they learned word-pairs and simultaneously performed different types of secondary tasks (i.e., internal, external, and control). Memory performance decreased in both internal and external secondary tasks compared to the easy control condition. However, while the external task reduced activity in memory-encoding related regions (hippocampus), the internal task increased neural activity in brain regions associated with self-reflection (anterior medial prefrontal cortex), as well as in regions associated with performance monitoring and the perception of salience (anterior insula, dorsal anterior cingulate cortex). Resting-state functional connectivity analyses confirmed that anterior medial prefrontal cortex and anterior insula/dorsal anterior cingulate cortex are part of the default mode network and salience network, respectively. In sum, a secondary internal task impairs memory performance just as a secondary external task, but operates through different neural mechanisms.

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