The Neural Basis of Ongoing Conscious Experience
In everyday life, our thoughts and feelings are not always driven by events in the external environment. Accordingly, studies of phenomena such as mind-wandering illustrate that studying cognition exclusively using task-related methods will fail to account for important aspects of human experience. This talk will review evidence that combines state-of-the-art measures of neural function with novel methods of experience sampling to reveal the brain mechanisms that underlie different aspects of ongoing conscious experience. It will demonstrate that neural systems important for attention/control are critical for the (i) efficient focus on external task-relevant information, and (ii) prioritization of patterns of internal or externally focused cognition in a manner that is in line with the demands of the environment. Furthermore, it will show that the role of the default mode network is neither to support task negative states, nor to promote episodic content. Instead, our studies show that this core neural system plays a critical role in how vivid and detailed conscious experiences are. Together, this work paves the way for a formal account of how ongoing conscious experience can focus on different sources of information, how these are prioritized, and how they can take on rich and detailed features.