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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Nov 12;110(46):18692-7. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1312902110. Epub 2013 Oct 28.

Mind wandering away from pain dynamically engages antinociceptive and default mode brain networks.

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Division of Brain, Imaging and Behaviour-Systems Neuroscience, Toronto Western Research Institute, University Health Network, Toronto, ON, Canada M5T 2S8.


Human minds often wander away from their immediate sensory environment. It remains unknown whether such mind wandering is unsystematic or whether it lawfully relates to an individual's tendency to attend to salient stimuli such as pain and their associated brain structure/function. Studies of pain-cognition interactions typically examine explicit manipulation of attention rather than spontaneous mind wandering. Here we sought to better represent natural fluctuations in pain in daily life, so we assessed behavioral and neural aspects of spontaneous disengagement of attention from pain. We found that an individual's tendency to attend to pain related to the disruptive effect of pain on his or her cognitive task performance. Next, we linked behavioral findings to neural networks with strikingly convergent evidence from functional magnetic resonance imaging during pain coupled with thought probes of mind wandering, dynamic resting state activity fluctuations, and diffusion MRI. We found that (i) pain-induced default mode network (DMN) deactivations were attenuated during mind wandering away from pain; (ii) functional connectivity fluctuations between the DMN and periaqueductal gray (PAG) dynamically tracked spontaneous attention away from pain; and (iii) across individuals, stronger PAG-DMN structural connectivity and more dynamic resting state PAG-DMN functional connectivity were associated with the tendency to mind wander away from pain. These data demonstrate that individual tendencies to mind wander away from pain, in the absence of explicit manipulation, are subserved by functional and structural connectivity within and between default mode and antinociceptive descending modulation networks.


experience sampling; pain modulation; salience network; stimulus-independent thought; ventral attention network

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