A set of brain regions known as the default network increases its activity when focus on the external world is relaxed. During such moments, participants change their focus of external attention and engage in spontaneous cognitive processes including remembering the past and imagining the future. However, the functional contributions of the default network to shifts in external attention versus internal mentation have been difficult to disentangle because the two processes are correlated under typical circumstances. To address this issue, the present study manipulated factors that promote spontaneous cognition separately from those that change the scope of external attention. Results revealed that the default network increased its activity when spontaneous cognition was maximized but not when participants increased their attention to unpredictable foveal or peripheral stimuli. To examine the nature of participants' spontaneous thoughts, a second experiment used self-report questionnaires to quantify spontaneous thoughts during extended fixation epochs. Thoughts about one's personal past and future comprised a major focus of spontaneous cognition with considerable variability. Activity correlations between the medial temporal lobe and distributed cortical regions within the default network predicted a small, but significant, portion of the observed variability. Collectively, these results suggest that during passive states, activity within the default network reflects spontaneous, internally directed cognitive processes.
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