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Psychophysiological and individual psychological factors of mind-wandering

Priority areas of development: humanitarian
The project has been carried out as part of the HSE Program of Fundamental Studies.

Research object: The current study is devoted to the study of the psychological phenomenon of mind-wandering.

Goal of research: The study aimed at complex psychophysiological and individual–psychological study of the state of mind-wandering, characterization of accompanying modulations of the way the brain processes information from the external word, with an accent on the search of the causal factors and precursors of attentional lapses caused by the state of mind-wandering, and personality factors and individual characteristics of cognitive tasks performance.

Methodology: The current study involved an extensive experimental study, during which volunteer participants performed specially designed behavioral tasks with high cognitive load, while psychophysiological measures of brain activity (electroencephalogram) were recorded. The state of mind-wandering was detected using the method of experiment interruption.

The participants were offered to fill in a battery psychological questionnaires aiming at measuring individual characteristics of mind-wandering, imaginal process and other related psychological characteristics.

Data analysis was based on modern mathematical methods including time-frequency analysis, analysis of averaged activity, construction and comparison of activity topograms etc. All data underwent advanced statistical processing that correspond the standards accepted in the worldwide scientific community.

Empirical base of research: The studies were conducted in volunteers who signed the informed consent to participate in the experiment. Studies were carried out in full compliance with ethical standards in accordance with the Helsinki Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent amendments thereto. During the experiments physiological parameters (electroencephalography, and others) and behavioral parameters (response time, correctness of response, etc.) were recorded, as well as the participants completed psychological questionnaires.

Results of research: The present study produced the following main results.

We have for the first time demonstrated that during the state of mind-wandering the level of cognitive control involved in the task performance decreases.

We have for the first time demonstrated that the basic mechanism of decrease in the quality of task performance during the state of mind-wandering is related to weakening of specific representations involved in task execution rather that lowered motor threshold.

We have for the first time described the detailed stricture of interrelations between the psychological characteristics in the context of susceptibility towards mind-wandering. Neuroticism and State Anxiety were positively linked to the Positive Style of Imaginal Processes. High measures of Openness and Positive Affect were related to Positive-Constructive Style of imaginal processes. There was also a negative relation between Conscientiousness and the predominance of Imagination Related to Attentional Faults.

We have for the first time demonstrated that the power of alpha oscillations in the frontal areas was positively related with Neuroticism and Trait Anxiety. Frontal theta power in the prestimulus time interval preceding errors was positively related to the Predominance of Imagination Style Related to Attentional Faults. We have also demonstrated that during the state of mind-wandering the frontal part of the default mode network was engaged, which is involved in integration of information from episodic memory, from brain structures responsible for motivations and emotions.

Novelty, importance, and practical applicability of the results:

The current study allows extension of the modern theoretical understanding of the internal mechanisms of mind-wandering – a largely understudied psychological phenomenon, which exerts significant influence on professional and every-day activity, which is involved in creativity, and which is extremely important in the framework of psychotherapy and psychiatry.

The novelty of approach used in the current project comprises application of the theoretical framework of cognitive control towards the analysis of the mind-wandering phenomenon.

 The current study has the following methodological novelty:

  • The study was performed with the use of the cognitive task, which created high cognitive load, imitating the realistic load under educational and labor activity.
  • This study combined the battery of psychological tests in juxtaposition with the indexes of brain activity.

The results obtained within the current study are essentially new. The most novel aspect of the results obtained is that we proved that the state of mind-wandering is caused by a decrease in the level of cognitive control involved in the task execution. These results open up new vistas for the further study of the mind-wandering phenomenon in its relation with activity currently executed by a person. Also new is a result according to which the main mechanism of deterioration of the quality of performance in the current task under the state of mind-wandering is related to weakening of specific representations involved in the current task execution – rather than with lowered motor threshold.

The project has high importance – both theoretical and practical – particularly, in the context of theoretical development in the areas of psychotherapy and psychiatry, because mind-wandering is a factor involved in the development of severe forms of depression and anxiety disorders, while at the same time it frequently promotes faster rehabilitation after personality traumatizing events.

The current study is important for the theoretical development of fundamental questions concerning the internal mechanisms of cognitive processes and human personality. The study results are also potentially applicable to solution of a number of practical issues, including labor optimization in science, education, industry, and transportation.


Novikov N., Bryzgalov D. V. Post-error adaptations are reflected in modulations of theta and alpha band power as revealed by the auditory condensation task, in: Седьмая международная конференция по когнитивной науке: Тезисы докладов. Светлогорск, 20–24 июня 2016 г. М. : Институт психологии РАН, 2016. P. 58-59.
Chernyshev B. V., Bryzgalov D. V., Lazarev I. E., Novikov N. Spontaneous attentional lapses are reflected in a positive voltage shift of the event-related potential in the P2 peak time window, in: Седьмая международная конференция по когнитивной науке: Тезисы докладов. Светлогорск, 20–24 июня 2016 г. М. : Институт психологии РАН, 2016. P. 34-36.
Chernyshev B. V., Medvedev V. Event-related potential study of P2 and N2 components on fast and slow responses in the auditory condensation task / Издательский дом НИУ ВШЭ. Series WP BRP "PSYCHOLOGY". 2016. No. WP BRP 70/PSY/2016.
Чернышев Б. В., Новиков Н. А., Брызгалов Д. В., Лапина А. А. Применение частотно-временного анализа электроэнцефалограммы к исследованию внутренних механизмов когнитивного контроля // В кн.: Процедуры и методы экспериментально-психологических исследований / Отв. ред.: В. Барабанщиков. Институт психологии РАН, 2016. С. 86-92.
Lapina A. A., Novikov N., Bryzgalov D. V., Chernyshev B. V. Cognitive control: two scenarios of performance monitoring for fast and slow responses P. 103-104. doi
N.A. Novikov, A.A. Lapina, J.M. N., B.V. Chernyshev. Fast and slow responses: two scenarios of performance monitoring, in: Communication, Computation, and Cognitive Processes (СССР3). Higher School of Economics Publishing House, 2016. P. 25-26.