Distant from input: Evidence of regions within the default mode network supporting perceptually-decoupled and conceptually-guided cognition

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Abstract

The default mode network supports a variety of mental operations such as semantic processing, episodic memory retrieval, mental time travel and mind-wandering, yet the commonalities between these functions remains unclear. One possibility is that this system supports cognition that is independent of the immediate environment; alternatively or additionally, it might support higher-order conceptual representations that draw together multiple features. We tested these accounts using a novel paradigm that separately manipulated the availability of perceptual information to guide decision-making and the representational complexity of this information. Using task based imaging we established regions that respond when cognition combines both stimulus independence with multi-modal information. These included left and right angular gyri and the left middle temporal gyrus. Although these sites were within the default mode network, they showed a stronger response to demanding memory judgements than to an easier perceptual task, contrary to the view that they support automatic aspects of cognition. In a subsequent analysis, we showed that these regions were located at the extreme end of a macroscale gradient, which describes gradual transitions from sensorimotor to transmodal cortex. This shift in the focus of neural activity towards transmodal, default mode, regions might reflect a process of where the functional distance from specific sensory enables conceptually rich and detailed cognitive states to be generated in the absence of input.

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