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Neurocognitive patterns dissociating semantic processing from executive control are linked to more detailed off-task mental time travel

By Hao-Ting Wang, Nerissa Siu Ping Ho, Danilo Bzdok, Boris C. Bernhardt, Daniel S. Margulies, Elizabeth Jefferies, Jonathan Smallwood

Posted 11 Sep 2019
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/765073

Features of ongoing experience are common across individuals and cultures. However, certain people express specific patterns to a greater extent than others. The current psychological theory assumes that individual differences in thought patterns occur because different types of experience depend on differences in associated neurocognitive mechanisms. Consequently, individual variation in the underlying neurocognitive architecture is hypothesised to determine the ease with which certain thought patterns are generated or maintained. Our study (N=178) tested this hypothesis using multivariate pattern analysis to infer shared variance among measures of cognitive function and neural organisation and examined whether these hidden structures explain reports of the patterns of on-going thoughts people experienced in the lab. We found that relatively better performance on tasks requiring primarily semantic knowledge, rather than executive control, was linked to a neural functional organisation that was associated, via meta-analysis, with task labels related to semantic associations (sentence processing, reading and verbal semantics). Variability of this functional mode predicted significant individual variation in the types of thoughts that individuals experienced in the laboratory: Neurocognitive patterns linked to better performance at tasks that required guidance from semantic representation, rather than those dependent on executive control, were associated with patterns of thought characterised by greater subjective detail and a focus on time periods other than the here and now. These relationships were consistent across different days and did not vary with task condition, indicating they are relatively stable features of an individual's cognitive profile. Together these data confirm that individual variation in aspects of ongoing experience can be inferred from hidden neurocognitive architecture and demonstrate that performance trade-offs between executive control and long term semantic knowledge are linked to a person's tendency to imagine situations that transcend the here and now.

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