The wandering brain: Meta-analysis of functional neuroimaging studies of mind-wandering and related spontaneous thought processes

Kieran C.R. Fox, R. Nathan Spreng, Melissa Ellamil, Jessica R. Andrews-Hanna, Kalina Christoff

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

447 Scopus citations


The neural basis and cognitive functions of various spontaneous thought processes, particularly mind-wandering, are increasingly being investigated. Although strong links have been drawn between the occurrence of spontaneous thought processes and activation in brain regions comprising the default mode network (DMN), spontaneous thought also appears to recruit other, non-DMN regions just as consistently. Here we present the first quantitative meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies of spontaneous thought and mind-wandering in order to address the question of their neural correlates. Examining 24 functional neuroimaging studies of spontaneous thought processes, we conducted a meta-analysis using activation likelihood estimation (ALE). A number of key DMN areas showed consistent recruitment across studies, including medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, medial temporal lobe, and bilateral inferior parietal lobule. Numerous non-DMN regions, however, were also consistently recruited, including rostrolateral prefrontal cortex, dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, insula, temporopolar cortex, secondary somatosensory cortex, and lingual gyrus. These meta-analytic results indicate that DMN activation alone is insufficient to adequately capture the neural basis of spontaneous thought; frontoparietal control network areas, and other non-DMN regions, appear to be equally central. We conclude that further progress in the cognitive and clinical neuroscience of spontaneous thought will therefore require a re-balancing of our view of the contributions of various regions and networks throughout the brain, and beyond the DMN.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)611-621
Number of pages11
StatePublished - May 1 2015
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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