Pay Attention, Brain

It’s 9:30 in the morning and I’m sitting in class listening to this old geezer talk about neuroscience. This is even more disheartening since I am in Paris over the summer break. As we touch upon genetic engineering, my mind takes this weird but quick neuronal pathway from genetic engineering to genes then jeans and finally shopping at the Avenue des Champs-Elysees. What a great time that was. We stopped by the Laduree and picked up some of the best macaroons in Paris. As I was falling deeper into the pleasures of my mind, I hear arguments over ethical reasons against pre-implantation genetic diagnosis from the other neuroscience students which quickly snaps me back to reality. I try to refocus my attention to the discussion at hand so I can put my two cents in for the day. As much as I love talking about enhancing the human race, my mind has the tendency to wander the streets of Paris.

The blue is the Accent center where my class is. The red is where my mind is, avenue des Champs-Elysees.

When my mind wanders, it isn’t a conscious choice (at least for the most part). It feels like sudden jolt of random associations till I get a sustained daydream or I realize I am wandering and stop. The default network is the culprit here. It is a network of brain regions that is known to become active during wakeful rest which is associated with mind wandering. In a default network study, subjects were trained to meditate by focusing on their breathing. They were then placed into an fMRI machine that measures brain activity via changes in blood flow. As soon as the subjects noticed their mind wandering away, they pressed a button and drew their attention back to their breathing. During the wandering stage, the fMRI revealed activity in the default network such as the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), which is known to integrate all sorts of sensory information. Another part of the default network is the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) which is known to attribute mental states such as desires to oneself and others (theory of the mind) (Hasenkamp et al., 2012). As the subjects drew attention back to their breaths, the default network shuts off and a cluster in the dorsolateral prefrontal region remains active. This region is responsible for high cognitive processes such as organization, planning, etc…. It makes sense that your dorsolateral prefrontal region turns off when your mind wanders since there is no need for the higher processes when you’re not actively thinking.

Thus during the first 10 minutes of every morning lecture, my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is highly active and maintained. Then, perhaps due to fatigue or boredom, my dorsolateral prefrontal activity starts to wane and my default network kicks in. I am now suddenly at the top of the Eiffel tower, taking in the beautiful scenery. At some point I realize I’m in class and my dorsolateral prefrontal cortex reactivates and my default network becomes quiet again. Whether the activity of the default network causes one to wander or vice versa is unknown. However I personally believe that the over activation of my default network is what causes me to lose crucial participation points in my class.

~James Eun

Hasenkamp W, Wilson-Mendenhall CD, Duncan E, Barsalou LW (2012) Mind wandering and attention during focused meditation: a fine-grained temporal analysis of fluctuating cognitive states. NeuroImage 59:750-760.

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