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Subjective inner experiences, such as mind-wandering, represent the fundaments of human cognition. Although the precise function of mind-wandering is still debated, it is increasingly acknowledged to have influence across cognition on processes such as future planning, creative thinking, and problem-solving and even on depressive rumination and other mental health disorders. Recently, there has been important progress in characterizing mind-wandering and identifying the associated neural networks. Two prominent features of mind-wandering are mental time travel and visuospatial imagery, which are often linked with the hippocampus. People with selective bilateral hippocampal damage cannot vividly recall events from their past, envision their future, or imagine fictitious scenes. This raises the question of whether the hippocampus plays a causal role in mind-wandering and, if so, in what way. Leveraging a unique opportunity to shadow people (all males) with bilateral hippocampal damage for several days, we examined, for the first time, what they thought about spontaneously, without direct task demands. We found that they engaged in as much mind-wandering as control participants. However, whereas controls thought about the past, present, and future, imagining vivid visual scenes, hippocampal damage resulted in thoughts primarily about the present comprising verbally mediated semantic knowledge. These findings expose the hippocampus as a key pillar in the neural architecture of mind-wandering and also reveal its impact beyond episodic memory, placing it at the heart of our mental life.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENTHumans tend to mind-wander ∼30-50% of their waking time. Two prominent features of this pervasive form of thought are mental time travel and visuospatial imagery, which are often associated with the hippocampus. To examine whether the hippocampus plays a causal role in mind-wandering, we examined the frequency and phenomenology of mind-wandering in patients with selective bilateral hippocampal damage. We found that they engaged in as much mind-wandering as controls. However, hippocampal damage changed the form and content of mind-wandering from flexible, episodic, and scene based to abstract, semanticized, and verbal. These findings expose the hippocampus as a key pillar in the neural architecture of mind-wandering and reveal its impact beyond episodic memory, placing it at the heart of our mental life.

Original publication

DOI

10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1812-17.2018

Type

Journal article

Journal

J Neurosci

Publication Date

14/03/2018

Volume

38

Pages

2745 - 2754

Keywords

amnesia, episodic, hippocampus, mental time travel, mind-wandering, scenes