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Rest Is Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain's Default Mode for Human Development and Education


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When people wakefully rest in the functional MRI scanner, their minds wander, and they engage a so-called default mode (DM) of neural processing that is relatively suppressed when attention is focused on the outside world. Accruing evidence suggests that DM brain systems activated during rest are also important for active, internally focused psychosocial mental processing, for example, when recalling personal memories, imagining the future, and feeling social emotions with moral connotations. Here the authors review evidence for the DM and relations to psychological functioning, including associations with mental health and cognitive abilities like reading comprehension and divergent thinking. This article calls for research into the dimensions of internally focused thought, ranging from free-form daydreaming and off-line consolidation to intensive, effortful abstract thinking, especially with socioemotional relevance. It is argued that the development of some socioemotional skills may be vulnerable to disruption by environmental distraction, for example, from certain educational practices or overuse of social media. The authors hypothesize that high environmental attention demands may bias youngsters to focus on the concrete, physical, and immediate aspects of social situations and self, which may be more compatible with external attention. They coin the term constructive internal reflection and advocate educational practices that promote effective balance between external attention and internal reflection. © The Author(s) 2012.
Overview of the main brain regions comprising the default mode (DM) network, with brief descriptions of associated socioemotional functions. The DM regions listed are relatively more active and show coordinated activity during wakeful “rest.” The regions depicted are also involved in many other functions, including various cognitive association functions and aspects of homeostatic regulation and somatosensation, especially for the milieu of the internal body (i.e., the “guts”). The left side of the image shows the front of the brain; the right and left hemispheres are split apart to show the medial surface. Note that these brain areas cannot be said to “do” the functions listed. Instead, they are especially “associated” with these functions and as such are thought to play important roles within the complex networks of regions underlying the functions. 1. Ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC): Induction of social emotions; nonconscious induction of somatic responses, such as skin sweating associated with a sense of risk; modulation of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (important for calming of heart rate). 2. Dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC): Representation of self in relation to others; predicting emotional outcomes of social interactions for self and close others; judging psychological and emotional qualities and traits; feeling emotions about others’ mental situations. 3. Anterior middle cingulate cortex (ACC): A centrally connected “hub” of the cortex, also heavily interconnected with somatosensory regions that feel the guts and viscera; error monitoring, emotion, and empathy; feeling physical and social pain; modulation of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system (important for activation of heart rate, arousal). 4. Posteromedial cortices (PMC): The most centrally connected “hub” of the cortex; high-level integrative representation of the physiological condition of the visceral “gut” body; construction of a subjective sense of self-awareness; activated in social emotions, moral decision making, and episodic memory retrieval; contains dorsal posterior cingulate cortex (dPCC), involved in attention monitoring or switching and integration of information. 5. Inferior parietal lobule (IPL): involved in successful episodic memory retrieval; empathically simulating others’ perspectives and the goals of others’ actions. 6. Hippocampus: Formation and recall of long-term memories (not visible in these views).
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Perspectives on Psychological
The online version of this article can be found at:
DOI: 10.1177/1745691612447308
2012 7: 352Perspectives on Psychological Science
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Joanna A. Christodoulou and Vanessa Singh
Rest Is Not Idleness : Implications of the Brain's Default Mode for Human Development and Education
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“Rest is not idleness.”
John Lubbock, The Use of Life (1894)
Clinicians and teachers often discuss the benefits of “down
time” and reflection for making sense of one’s experiences and
decisions about future behavior. For example, many experien-
tial education programs emphasize the importance of time for
introspection, and interventions and therapies that teach skills
for quiet reflection and mindfulness produce benefits espe-
cially for social and emotional functioning (Cohen, 2006; Col-
laborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning
Briefs, 2007; Semple, Lee, Rosa, & Miller, 2010) but also for
academic achievement (Brackett, Rivers, Reyes, & Salovey,
2010). Why should this be, and how can developmental, clini-
cal, and educational psychologists better conceptualize the
role of off-line and reflective processing for human develop-
ment? Conversely, how might researchers think in new ways
about the impacts of high environmental attentional demands
on learning and socioemotional development, including, for
example, demands from entertainment media, from the chal-
lenges associated with urban settings, or in the classroom?
Emerging conceptions of brain functioning reveal that neu-
ral networks responsible for maintaining and focusing atten-
tion into the environment appear to toggle with a so-called
default mode (DM) of brain function that is spontaneously
induced during rest, daydreaming, and other nonattentive but
awake mental states (Smallwood, Obonsawin, & Heim, 2003).
Further evidence from social and affective neuroscience sug-
gests the importance of brain systems implicated in the DM
for active, internally focused psychosocial mental processing,
for example, in tasks involving self-awareness and reflection,
Corresponding Author:
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Brain and Creativity Institute and Rossier
School of Education, University of Southern California, 3641 Watt Way,
Los Angeles, CA 90089-2520
Rest Is Not Idleness: Implications of
the Brain’s Default Mode for Human
Development and Education
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang1,2, Joanna A. Christodoulou3,
and Vanessa Singh1
1Brain and Creativity Institute , University of Southern California, Los Angeles;
2Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California, Los Angeles ; and
3Depar tment of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA
When people wakefully rest in the functional MRI scanner, their minds wander, and they engage a so-called default mode
(DM) of neural processing that is relatively suppressed when attention is focused on the outside world. Accruing evidence
suggests that DM brain systems activated during rest are also important for active, internally focused psychosocial mental
processing, for example, when recalling personal memories, imagining the future, and feeling social emotions with moral
connotations. Here the authors review evidence for the DM and relations to psychological functioning, including associations
with mental health and cognitive abilities like reading comprehension and divergent thinking. This article calls for research
into the dimensions of internally focused thought, ranging from free-form daydreaming and off-line consolidation to intensive,
effortful abstract thinking, especially with socioemotional relevance. It is argued that the development of some socioemotional
skills may be vulnerable to disruption by environmental distraction, for example, from certain educational practices or
overuse of social media. The authors hypothesize that high environmental attention demands may bias youngsters to focus
on the concrete, physical, and immediate aspects of social situations and self, which may be more compatible with external
attention. They coin the term constructive internal ref lection and advocate educational practices that promote effective balance
between external attention and internal reflection.
reflection, memory, prosocial emotion
by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang on June 29, 2012pps.sagepub.comDownloaded from
Constructive Internal Reflection and the Brain 353
recalling personal memories, imagining the future, feeling
emotions about the psychological impact of social situations
on other people, and constructing moral judgments (Buckner,
Andrews-Hanna, & Schacter, 2008; Gilbert & Wilson, 2007;
Spreng & Grady, 2010; Spreng, Mar, & Kim, 2009). Studies
examining individual differences in the brain’s DM connectiv-
ity, essentially measures of how coherently the areas of the
network coordinate during rest and decouple during outward
attention, find that people with stronger DM connectivity at
rest score higher on measures of cognitive abilities like diver-
gent thinking, reading comprehension, and memory (Li et al.,
2009; Song et al., 2009; van den Heuvel, Stam, Kahn, &
Hulshoff Pol, 2009; Wig et al., 2008). Taken together, these
findings lead to a new neuroscientific conception of the brain’s
functioning “at rest,” namely, that neural processing during
lapses in outward attention may be related to self and social
processing and to thought that transcends concrete, semantic
representations and that the brain’s efficient monitoring and
control of task-directed and non-task-directed states (or of out-
wardly and inwardly directed attention) may underlie impor-
tant dimensions of psychological functioning. These findings
also suggest the possibility that inadequate opportunity for
children to play and for adolescents to quietly reflect and to
daydream may have negative consequences—both for social-
emotional well-being and for their ability to attend well to
Despite the potential implications, however, psychological
scientists are largely unaware of or have underappreciated the
relevance of this actively growing body of neural findings, and
cognitive neuroscientists interested in development and edu-
cation have largely focused on the immediate, negative effects
of attention lapses on task-directed performance (e.g., Kane
et al., 2007; McVay & Kane, 2010; Smallwood, Beach,
Schooler, & Handy, 2008; Smallwood, Fishman, & Schooler,
2007). Therefore, our goals in this article are (a) to introduce
psychological scientists to recent advances in understanding
the functioning of the brain and mind during lapses in outward
attention; (b) to generate an early hypothesis from the neuro-
science findings concerning the effects of consistently high
external attention demands in schools and leisure environ-
ments on socioemotional development in children and adoles-
cents; (c) to propose preliminary examples of productive
connections between this hypothesis and current educational
and developmental psychological research findings, in order
to demonstrate the utility of the neural findings for psycholo-
gists; and (d) to advocate educational practices that promote
more effective balance between children’s needs for external
attention and internal reflection. The overarching premise of
the article is that although daydreaming and other lapses in
outward attention lead to poor performance on concentration-
requiring tasks in the moment, skills for reflecting during
lapses in outward attention and time for safely indulging mind
wandering may be critical for healthy development and learn-
ing in the longer term.
Looking out and Looking in: The Discovery
of Complementary Brain Networks
Neuroscience studies over the past several decades have
revealed that contrary to early theories, attention is not a gen-
eral property of the whole brain but the product of specific
networks that contribute to various aspects of processing.
Decades of study have differentiated three systems responsi-
ble for monitoring and responding to the environment around
us and for focusing our mental processing on incoming stim-
uli: alerting, orienting, and executive control (see Corbetta &
Shulman, 2002; Fan, McCandliss, Sommer, Raz, & Posner,
2002; Posner & Petersen, 1990). These functions, which rely
heavily on lateral frontal and parietal regions, are important
for cognitive development, and interventions that support chil-
dren in strengthening skills related to these aspects of attention
improve cognitive and academic performance in a variety of
domains (Posner & Rothbart, 2005; Smallwood et al., 2007;
Stevens, Lauinger, & Neville, 2009).
But what does the brain do when not engaged in a focused,
goal-directed task? Newly emerging theories of the brain’s
functional architecture reveal that the attention networks
described above are part of a broader complement of brain
networks that can roughly be conceptualized as supporting
two alternating systems. One of these networks is “task posi-
tive”; its recruitment is associated with active engagement in
goal-directed tasks involving attention to the world and evalu-
ating the salience of external stimuli (Seeley et al., 2007). This
network supports what we will call the “looking out” system.
Another network, known variously as the “task negative” or
“resting” network, has been found to be associated with the
brain’s default mode of operation (Buckner & Vincent, 2007;
Raichle et al., 2001). This network comprises mainly regions
along the midline of the brain, in both the parietal and the fron-
tal lobes, along with more lateral regions in the inferior part of
the parietal lobe and the medial part of the temporal lobe (see
Fig. 1). During neuroimaging experiments, the activity in
these regions is heightened most reliably during passive rest
(Greicius, Krasnow, Reiss, & Menon, 2003), induced by para-
digms such as asking participants to stare for several minutes
at a plus sign shown in the center of their field of vision or to
relax with their eyes open or closed. We will call this the
“looking in” system. (Note our nomenclature: We use the term
network to describe sets of brain regions whose activity is
functionally coordinated. We use the term system to describe
the psychologically relevant capacities that are supported by
the brain network.)
The past decade of neuroscience research has revealed that
as one network is increasingly engaged, the other is decreas-
ingly engaged (Esposito et al., 2006; Fox et al., 2005). It is
thought that the toggling of these networks reflects a shift
from a state of external monitoring and focus on goal-directed
activity (“looking out”) into a more free-form, internally
directed, stimulus-independent mental state (“looking in”; see
by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang on June 29, 2012pps.sagepub.comDownloaded from
354 Immordino-Yang et al.
Smallwood, Brown, Baird, & Schooler, 2011, for a related
argument). Recent research suggests that these networks’ effi-
ciency and co-regulation improve as the brain matures through
childhood (Fair et al., 2008) but that the rudiments of this
functional organization are present in childhood (Supekar
et al., 2010; Thomason et al., 2008), infancy, and possibly
even prenatally (Doria et al., 2010; Fransson et al., 2007; but
see Fransson, Åden, Blennow, & Lagercrantz, 2011).
In addition, it is likely that the networks that support sys-
tems for “looking in” and “looking out” are codependent and
co-regulate one another—the functioning of one, both in the
moment and over the longer term, has been found to predict
the functioning of the other. There is a growing body of
neuroscience studies showing that the quality of DM brain
activity during rest is related to the quality of subsequent neu-
ral and behavioral responses to environmental stimuli and that
momentary and longer lasting complementary fluctuations in
these networks are important for perception, attention, and
goal-directed cognition (see Northoff, Duncan, & Hayes,
2010, for a review; Spreng, Stevens, Chamberlain, Gilmore, &
Schacter, 2010). For example, in a neuroimaging experiment
in which participants alternated blocks of resting with looking
at images and listening to sounds, the more effectively the DM
regions were activated during rest and deactivated while
attending to the images and sounds, the more brain activation
there was in sensory cortices during the image and sound
Fig. 1. Overview of the main brain regions comprising the default mode (DM) net work, with brief
descriptions of associated socioemotional functions. The DM regions listed are relatively more active and
show coordinated activity during wakeful “rest.” The regions depicted are also involved in many other
functions, including various cognitive association functions and aspects of homeostatic regulation and
somatosensation, especially for the milieu of the internal body (i.e., the “guts”). The left side of the image
shows the front of the brain; the right and left hemispheres are split apart to show the medial surface. Note
that these brain areas cannot be said to “do” the functions listed. Instead, they are especially “associated”
with these functions and as such are thought to play important roles within the complex networks of
regions underlying the functions. 1. Ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC): Induction of social emotions;
noncon scious induct ion of somatic re sponses, suc h as skin sweat ing associat ed with a sense of r isk; modul ation
of the par asympathetic branch of the autonomic ner vous system (important for calming of heart rate). 2 .
Dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC ): Representation of self in relation to others; predicting emotional
outcomes of social interactions for self and close others; judging psychological and emotional qualities
and traits; feeling emotions about others’ mental situations. 3. Anterior middle cingulate cortex (ACC): A
centrally connected “hub” of the cortex, also heavily interconnected with somatosensory regions that feel
the guts and viscera; error monitoring, emotion, and empathy; feeling physical and social pain; modulation of
the sympathetic branch of the autonomic ner vous system (important for activation of heart rate, arousal).
4. Posteromedial cortices (PMC): The most centrally connected “hub” of the cortex; high-level integrative
representation of the physiological condition of the visceral “gut” body ; construction of a subjective sense of
self-awareness; activated in social emotions, moral decision making, and episodic memory retrieval; contains
dorsal posterior cingulate cortex (dPCC), involved in attention monitoring or switching and integration of
information. 5. Inferior parietal lobule ( IPL): involved in successful episodic memory retrieval; empathically
simulating others’ perspectives and the goals of others’ actions. 6. Hippocampus: Formation and recall of
long-term memories (not visible in these views).
by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang on June 29, 2012pps.sagepub.comDownloaded from
Constructive Internal Reflection and the Brain 355
presentations (Greicius & Menon, 2004). Longitudinal studies
also suggest that there is considerable variability in the strength
of DM connectivity among adults and that although patterns of
activity during rest are relatively stable in adulthood (Beason-
Held, Kraut, & Resnick, 2009), training introspection (e.g.,
through meditation) can alter the functioning of DM networks
as well as improve skills for sustained attention on a task (e.g.,
Brefczynski-Lewis, Lutz, Schaefer, Levinson, & Davidson,
2007; Brewer et al., 2012; Chiesa, Calati, & Serretti, 2010;
Hölzel et al., 2007; Jha, Krompinger, & Baime, 2007; Tang
et al., 2007).
Relations to individual differences in
socioemotional functioning
The efficiency with which a brain toggles between activity asso-
ciated with DM and outward attention as well as the strength of
functional connectivity between DM regions during “rest” seem
also to be associated with neural and psychological health, espe-
cially around social and emotional functioning. Atypicalities
in DM functioning have been found to be related to social-
emotional symptoms in schizophrenia (Whitfield-Gabrieli
et al., 2009), autism (Cherkassky, Kana, Keller, & Just, 2006;
Kennedy, Redcay, & Courchesne, 2006), attention deficit disor-
der (ADD; Castellanos et al., 2008; Tomasi & Volkow, 2012;
Uddin et al., 2008), anxiety disorders (Etkin, Prater, Schatzberg,
Menon, & Greicius, 2009; Zhao et al., 2007), depression
(Greicius et al., 2007), and other conditions. The differences in
DM functioning among these populations seem to relate consis-
tently to the hallmark symptoms of the disorder. For instance,
autism is associated with atypically low levels of functional
connectivity between DM regions during rest; these findings are
thought to reflect a paucity of social and psychological thought
and emotion (Kennedy & Courchesne, 2008). People with
schizophrenia, by contrast, show heightened activation and
hyperconnectivity in the DM network that are insufficiently
attenuated during outward attention (Bluhm et al., 2007; Garrity
et al., 2007; Zhou et al., 2007); this pattern is thought to produce
a heightened propensity toward mentalizing and a blurring of
boundaries between one’s own and others’ minds that contrib-
utes to disordered thought when coupled with schizophrenics’
excessive alertness to the external environment (Whitfield-
Gabrieli et al., 2009).
Relations to individual differences in cognitive
Tantalizing new evidence suggests that certain aspects of DM
functioning during “rest” and during tasks are related to intel-
ligence in adults as indexed by standardized IQ scores, to read-
ing and memory abilities, and to performance ability on
attention-demanding cognitive tasks. For example, studies
have found that when people with higher IQ scores “rest” in
the functional MRI (fMRI) scanner, the DM connectivity in
their brains, especially for long-range connections, is stronger
than that measured in the brains of people with average IQs (Li
et al., 2009; Song et al., 2009). The main finding concerns not
the amount of activation in DM regions but the functional
coordination or extent of “cross-talk” between DM regions. In
participants with higher IQs, there is more efficient communi-
cation and coordination between frontal and parietal DM
regions during “rest,” which is thought to underlie better cog-
nitive abilities for making connections between disparate
pieces of information (van den Heuvel et al., 2009).
With regard to reading and memory ability, findings are
related to efficient toggling between the complementary net-
works. In reading studies, clearer functional segregation dur-
ing “rest” between DM regions and a key brain region
specialized for reading (the left fusiform gyrus, not part of the
DM) is associated with reading skill among adults; this clear
segregation is not yet mature in children ages 8–14 (Koyama
et al., 2011). In memory studies, better long-term recall is
associated with greater deactivation of DM regions involved
in encoding and recall, specifically the hippocampus and its
neighboring parahippocampal gyrus, during simple cognitive
tasks compared with during “rest” (Wig et al., 2008). Failure
to adequately deactivate another DM region, the posterome-
dial cortices, during a task requiring outwardly focused atten-
tion is also associated with memory declines in older adults
(Miller et al., 2008).
Finally, measures of efficient down regulation of DM net-
work activity during external attention-demanding tasks have
been found to predict cognitive performance on these tasks in
real time. For example, in an experiment using deep-brain
electrode recording during simpler and more complex visual
search tasks, magnitude of moment-to-moment suppression in
DM networks increased with the complexity of processing
required and predicted subjects’ performance (Ossandon et al.,
To summarize, although the main focus in attention research
relevant to development and education to date has been on “look-
ing out” into the environment, for example, the facility with
which a child filters out distractions and maintains focus on a
task (Posner & Rothbart, 2005; Rueda, Rothbart, McCandliss,
Saccomanno, & Posner, 2005), the neuroscience findings re -
viewed here suggest that (a) the quality of neural processing that
supports the system for “looking out” is tied to the quality of
neural processing that supports the system for “looking in” and
to individuals’ abilities to move between these two modes effi-
ciently; (b) the quality of neural processing during “looking in”
is related to socioemotional functioning as well as to other
dimensions of thought that transcend the “here and now.” Yet
the implications of these neural findings for psychological
development in naturalistic environments like schools have not
been studied. The next section provides an overview of the psy-
chological operations that have been related to activity in DM
brain regions in adults, in order to begin a conversation among
psychological scientists about the dimensions of thought associ-
ated with lapses in outward attention and developmental impli-
cations. We focus on socioemotional functioning to highlight
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356 Immordino-Yang et al.
the interdependence of the neural networks that support atten-
tive mental states and states that may promote meaning making
and socioemotional well-being.
What Does the Mind Do When the Brain
Is “at Rest”? Memories, Prospections,
Emotions, and the Mental “Self”
As almost any human being can attest, when a person disen-
gages from externally oriented goal-directed behavior, his or
her mind is not idle—instead, it can become absorbed in a
dynamic stream of free-form thought that is associated with
mind wandering, spontaneous recollection of previous memo-
ries, production of hypothetical scenarios and future plans, and
other personal and social thoughts and imaginings (Andreasen
et al., 1995; Smallwood & Schooler, 2006). When considered
this way, it is no wonder that some sectors of the brain are
highly active during neuroimaging paradigms meant to induce
“rest.” The mind is not idle in the absence of externally focused,
goal-directed tasks—instead, the relative lapse in perceptual
vigilance provides an opportunity to mentally wander far from
the current physical context, maintaining just enough attention
to engage automatic behaviors and to monitor the environment
for interruptions, while indulging thoughts, fantasies, and
memories about the social world and the psychological self.
It is interesting to note that in addition to studies reporting
signature DM activations during non-goal-directed activities
such as “rest” in the fMRI scanner, there is now a growing list
of neuroimaging studies that report activations in DM regions
during goal-directed tasks involving introspective, socioemo-
tional, and self-referential processing or simulation. For
instance, activation in DM regions has been found when indi-
viduals engage in such activities as feeling compassion for a
young mother with cancer or feeling inspired by her determi-
nation (Immordino-Yang, McColl, Damasio, & Damasio,
2009); imagining how their opinions would change if they
awoke one day as a member of the opposite sex (Tamir &
Mitchell, 2011); evaluating moral scenarios, for example, sce-
narios depicting treatment of wartime prisoners (Harrison
et al., 2008); and recalling memories for personal experiences
(see Wagner, Shannon, Kahn, & Buckner, 2005, for a review).
Notably, processing related to cognitive perspective taking
or traditional theory of mind functions or to evaluating the
more concrete and immediate physical and cognitive aspects
of social situations is not especially associated with DM
regions (see Waytz & Mitchell, 2011, for a related argument).
Instead, DM regions seem to be recruited for processing that
pertains less to factual knowledge from one’s memory or
deduction about another’s knowledge state and more to simu-
lation and evaluation of abstract social, emotional, and moral
implications of one’s own or others’ knowledge states. For
example, several studies have implicated the dorsomedial pre-
frontal cortex in judgments about psychological traits and
emotional qualities of the self and close others (Blakemore &
Frith, 2004; Jenkins & Mitchell, 2011; Kelley et al., 2002;
Kitayama & Park, 2010; Mitchell, Banaji, & Macrae, 2005;
Northoff et al., 2006), an effect that can be modulated by in-
group/out-group racial comparisons (Mathur, Harada, &
Chiao, 2011) and by cultural conceptions of interdependent
versus independent self (Harada, Li, & Chiao, 2010; Markus
& Kitayama, 1991). Involvement of the inferior–posterior sec-
tor of the posteromedial cortices, the most centrally connected
“hub” of the DM network (Hagmann et al., 2008), has been
found to be related to self-awareness (Buckner et al., 2008)
and autobiographical self (Damasio & Meyer, 2009) and has
been consistently implicated in episodic and personal memory
retrieval (Immordino-Yang & Singh, 2011; Wagner et al.,
2005), daydreaming (Christoff, Gordon, Smallwood, Smith, &
Schooler, 2009), moral judgment tasks (Greene, Sommerville,
Nystrom, Darley, & Cohen, 2001), and social emotions about
others’ mental qualities and circumstances, such as admiring
another’s virtuous commitment to those less fortunate or feel-
ing compassion for someone who has lost a loved one
(Immordino-Yang et al., 2009). By contrast, tasks that require
simply recognizing and labeling an emotional facial expres-
sion from a picture or emotionally reacting to a person’s skill-
ful performance or physical injury do not recruit this network
(and in fact may suppress its activation because such tasks
require outward attention; Immordino-Yang et al., 2009;
Sreenivas, Boehm, & Linden, 2012).
Taking this evidence together, we find that brain regions
involved in the DM appear to be specifically recruited and
specialized for processing abstract information relevant to the
psychological, affective, and subjective aspects of the self and
other people, both in everyday contexts and for more complex
moral, socioemotional, prospective, and retrospective func-
tions (Buckner & Carroll, 2007). This description is necessar-
ily broad—after all, DM activation could be said to underlie
half of what the mind does. Our aim in providing this descrip-
tion is to give psychological scientists a sense of the dimen-
sions of thought associated with lapses in outward attention,
for comparison with those associated with heightened outward
attention (e.g., sensory perception and vigilance to the physi-
cal context, cognitive processing of situationally relevant
tasks, motor control and coordination of actions, perception of
social and emotional stimuli [but not deep reflection on their
meaning], and recalling semantic or factual information). This
comparison is important because, judging from what is being
learned of brain functioning, activating the neural platform
that supports mental processes associated with DM regions
may be relatively incompatible with externally focused atten-
tion or vigilance into the environment, especially while
control systems for monitoring and alternately engaging
inward focus and outward attention are immature. Our hope is
that in distilling the neural findings, we have provided a start-
ing point for appreciating the breadth of their applicability.
The next section grounds these ideas with a naturalistic exam-
ple, in order to narrow the focus onto a new hypothesis for
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Constructive Internal Reflection and the Brain 357
An Example of Spontaneous “Looking in”
During Social Learning
Consider the reaction of one college-age participant, “John,”
during a one-on-one social emotion-induction interview in
which he was told a true story meant to induce compassion.
The story is about a young boy who grew up in a small indus-
trial city in China during an economic depression that often
left him hungry. The boy’s father had died just after the boy’s
birth, leaving his mother to work long hours as a laborer. John
was shown a video clip in which the boy’s mother describes
how, one winter afternoon, she found a coin on the ground and
used it to buy warm cakes for her son, who had been all day at
school with nothing to eat. The mother recounts how her son
had been so hungry, yet he had offered her the last cake, which
she declined by lying that she had eaten already. After the
video, the experimenter asked John how this situation made
him feel, to which John responded:
This is the one [true story from the experiment] that’s hit
me the most, I suppose. And I’m not very good at ver-
balizing emotions. But . . . um . . . I can almost feel the
physical sensations. It’s like there’s a balloon or some-
thing just under my sternum, inflating and moving up
and out. Which, I don’t know, is my sign of something
really touching. . . . [pause] And, so, the selflessness of
the mother . . . and then also of the little boy. You know,
having these wonderful cakes that he never gets to have,
and still offering them to her . . . and then her turning
them down, is . . . uh . . . [long pause] It makes me think
about my parents, because they provide me with so
much and I don’t thank them enough, I don’t think. . . .
I know I don’t. So, I should do that. (adapted from
Immordino-Yang, 2011)
In answering the straightforward question of how this
story made him feel, John revealed a common pattern in
which deliberations leading to a complex reaction to a social
situation begin with a general report of feeling emotionally
touched or moved (“hit”), which is sometimes accompanied
by visceral sensations (“a balloon . . . under my sternum”).
Even though John did not seem to really know yet what emo-
tion he was having (“I’m not very good at verbalizing”), he
noticed the emotional power of the story based on the physi-
ological “signs” he felt. But he did not stop there. Instead,
after briefly reviewing the relevant actions from the story
(who gave whom what to eat) and their meaning based on
what he knew about the situation (there is a shortage of food,
so sharing food implies “selflessness”), John paused. He
appeared to briefly withdraw from the interaction with the
experimenter and blankly gazed into his lap. Then he emerged
with a report of having spontaneously evaluated his own
relationship with his parents. By evaluating the emotional
implications of another boy’s situation, John learned to better
appreciate his own.
How does this example pertain to the argument at hand?
John’s reaction to the compassion-inducing story nicely dem-
onstrates how new insights and understandings are actively,
dynamically constructed (Fischer & Bidell, 2006; Fischer &
Immordino-Yang, 2002)—learners build from prior knowl-
edge and work to actively accommodate new information to
make sense of the current situation. It also demonstrates the
value of a reflective pause in moving from considering the
concrete, action-oriented, context-specific details of this situa-
tion (knowing what happened and why) to constructing an
understanding of the broader and longer term emotional impli-
cations for one’s own or any situation (in John’s case, what the
actions mean for the protagonists’ psychological qualities and
how recognizing these qualities leads him to express greater
appreciation of his own parents’ sacrifices for him). What is
interesting is that our neural data support the interpretation
that John’s pauses are a behavioral manifestation of DM neu-
ral activity. Our current analyses reveal that the more a partici-
pant reflectively pauses in the social emotions interview, the
more cognitively abstract and complex his or her answers (i.e.,
the higher the construal level; Pavarini, Schnall, & Immordino-
Yang, 2012), the more DM activity the participant will later
show when feeling emotions with moral connotations in the
MRI scanner, and the stronger the participant’s DM connectiv-
ity during rest (Immordino-Yang, Pavarini, Schnall, & Yang,
In the next section, we focus on two developmental impli-
cations of the findings: (a) that time and skills for constructive
internal reflection are beneficial for emotional learning and
well-being; and (b) that inordinately biasing children’s and
adolescents’ attention to the external world may undermine the
development of abilities to think about the abstract, moral, and
social-emotional aspects of situations, information, memories,
and self. Put another way, we hypothesize that consistently
imposing high attention demands on children, either in school,
through entertainment, or through living conditions, may rob
them of opportunities to advance from thinking about “what
happened” or “how to do this” to constructing knowledge
about “what this means for the world and for the way I live my
life.” For instance, it could lead teenagers to admire a skillful
sports player but not the mental fortitude of, say, a courageous
civil rights leader.
What Does This Mean for Children? Toward
the Hypothesis That Healthy Psychological
Development Requires Opportunities and
Skills for “Looking in”
One implication of the DM findings is that the brain seems to
honor a distinction between the processing of information
about concrete, physical, and immediate circumstances, facts
and procedures, and abstract information about mental, hypo-
thetical, and longer term circumstances and implications.
Given that deliberating on abstract social-emotional and
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358 Immordino-Yang et al.
hypothetical circumstances seems to be associated with the
“looking in” system, we hypothesize that these kinds of think-
ing may be particularly vulnerable to disruption by external
distraction, especially while attentional monitoring and con-
trol are immature. Had the experimenter above interrupted
John during his reflective pause, would he have made the con-
ceptual leap from considering the story to evaluating his own
relationship with his parents? If John had grown up under con-
ditions that did not support time for safe internal reflection,
would he have failed to fully develop this skill? We do not
know the answers to these questions. But given the accumulat-
ing neural evidence, it seems reasonable to conjecture that
important skills for reflection and for building personal mean-
ing may depend heavily on psychological functions associated
with activity in DM brain networks and may therefore be cur-
tailed if environmental attention demands and distractions are
consistently overly high.
Preliminary connections to education
Although education research on learning and achievement have
not been framed to highlight transitions to internally focused
attention, there are hints that teaching skills for productive inter-
nal, self-directed processing in schools may be beneficial both
for socioemotional well-being and for academic skills (see also
Immordino-Yang & Sylvan, 2010; Yeager & Walton, 2011). For
example, high school students encouraged before a test to write
in a journal about their beliefs about the implications of their
test performance for their life more broadly overcame anxiety
and performed better (Ramirez & Beilock, 2011). Similarly,
envisioning advantageous possibilities for one’s future identity
and connecting these possibilities to current behavioral choices
have been found to powerfully improve school performance and
motivation (Oyserman, Terry, & Bybee, 2002), but the efficacy
of these activities is heavily dependent on students’ subjective
interpretation of their experiences (Destin & Oyserman, 2009;
Hatcher & Bringle, 1997). In elementary school-age children,
emotional well-being, self-confidence, and academic achieve-
ment are bolstered for students taught to take a “meta-moment”
in which they remove themselves from distracting circum-
stances, reflectively evaluate their memories and feelings, envi-
sion an ideal “self,” and then make an appropriate plan (Brackett
et al., 2010).
Together, these interventions may improve academic per-
formance, compared with various control interventions with-
out a socioemotional focus, in part because they set up
neuropsychological circumstances optimally conducive to
extracting the emotional meaning of situations, to connecting
this meaning to personal memories, and to imagining a better
future course of action. Of course, students should not be
encouraged to waste time or to dwell on inconsequential or
irrelevant private musings during work time. Doing so clearly
decreases productivity (Smallwood et al., 2007). Still, the DM
research reviewed here suggests that for students to optimally
engage attentively to tasks, they may also require skills and
opportunities for high-quality knowledge consolidation. Con-
sidering the neural and psychological evidence together sug-
gests that adequate developmental opportunity for appropriate
lapses in outwardly directed attention, and potentially even for
high-quality introspective states, may be important for well-
being and for optimal performance on focused tasks, as the
quality of thought during “looking in” and “looking out” may
be interdependent. Because of this, it may be that educational
experiences and settings crafted to promote balance between
“looking out” and “looking in,” in which children are guided
to navigate between and leverage the brain’s complementary
networks skillfully and in which teachers work to distinguish
between loss of attentive focus and engaging a mindful, reflec-
tive focus, will prove optimal for development. Put another
way, leaving room for self-relevant processing in school may
help students to own their learning, both the process and the
Emerging evidence on the effects of heavy
social media use
The prevalence of digitally mediated communication and enter-
tainment among youths has dramatically increased in recent
years, and texting is reputedly superseding all other forms of
friendship interaction among teens in developed nations (Pew
Research Center, 2010, 2011). This shift in technology use has
caused widespread concern about how heavy reliance on digi-
tally mediated communication may affect development. Are
children losing skills for face-to-face social interaction, and
how would this loss of skill manifest psychologically?
Although there is very little published research to date
addressing these questions, cumulative evidence on DM func-
tioning would suggest a relatively straightforward implication.
If youths overuse social media, if they spend very little waking
time free from the possibility that a text will interrupt them, we
would expect that these conditions might predispose youths
toward focusing on the concrete, physical, and immediate
aspects of situations and self, with less inclination toward con-
sidering the abstract, longer term, moral, and emotional impli-
cations of their and others’ actions. One recent study of more
than 2,300 young adults (Canadian college students ages 18–
22) tested related hypotheses and found results that accord
remarkably with these predictions (Trapnell & Sinclair, 2012).
The study found that higher levels of social texting among
research participants were weakly but consistently positively
associated with out-group prejudice and materialism, for
example, with reporting lower positivity toward indigenous
Canadians, and with believing that physical attractiveness is
an important personal value. Conversely, higher levels of tex-
ting were consistently negatively associated with measures of
moral reflectiveness, for example, with motivation to promote
social equality or justice in the community, and with perceived
importance of living with integrity.
Although it is not clear in this study whether texting caused
the moral changes or whether youths with particular social
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Constructive Internal Reflection and the Brain 359
dispositions gravitate toward heavy use of texting, there are
hints that the effects might be causal. Trapnell and Sinclair
(2012) also found that an increase in texting over the 5 years
of the study (2007–2011) paralleled a decrease in reported
reflectivity. A separate experimental manipulation study by
Abraham, Pocheptsova, and Ferraro (2012) found that after
being asked to draw and describe their cell phone, participants
showed temporary decreases in prosocial behavior (as mea-
sured by willingness to donate time or resources to a charity
for the homeless) but increases in perceived social connected-
ness. Another small-scale study reported that among youths,
higher texting frequency was associated with finding friend-
ships less “fulfilling” (Angstermichael & Lester, 2010). The
somewhat alarming implication, still not directly tested, is that
if youths are habitually pulled into the outside world by dis-
tracting media snippets, or if their primary mode of socially
interacting is via brief, digitally transmitted communications,
they may be systematically undermining opportunities to
reflect on the moral, social, emotional, and longer term impli-
cations of social situations and personal values. This situation
could potentially alter the perceived quality of their social
relationships and over time might bias identity development
toward focusing on concrete or physical abilities, traits, and
Of note, in our opinion, the preliminary findings described
here should not be taken as de facto evidence that access to
technology is necessarily bad for development or weakens
morality. After all, texting is another (digital) tool that is only
as good as the user’s purposes or goals. If texting is used to
change momentary, context-specific behavior, for example, to
remind individuals with health problems to engage in particu-
lar health-related behaviors, evidence suggests that it can be
remarkably effective (Cole-Lewis & Kershaw, 2010). Instead,
these data should be taken as an early warning of the possibil-
ity that overusing technologies that reduce social communica-
tion to short snippets that continually interrupt the receiver,
and that restrict communication to less reflective content,
could be harmful. “High texting” youths in the Trapnell and
Sinclair (2012) study sometimes reported receiving or sending
upward of 300 non-work-related texts per day, which is more
than twice the average reported by the Pew Research Center
Of course, the flip side of the coin might also be true: If used
well, access to these same technologies could promote social
reflectiveness and moral responsibility by facilitating communi-
cation between people who are far from each other and who
would not otherwise have opportunities to interact, in order to
foster empathic understanding of world situations and cross-
cultural perspectives. For example, in the Iranian election pro-
tests of 2009–2010, rapid-fire social media are thought to have
been instrumental both for the organization of the political
movement and for garnering international empathy for protest-
ers (Kamalipour, 2010). As another example, primary schools
with a global curricular focus by necessity use digital media to
connect classrooms oceans apart, so that students can share
experiences and beliefs with students from different cultural
backgrounds (Süssmuth, 2007; see also
In the end, the question will not be as much about what the tech-
nology does to people as it will be about how best to use the
technology in a responsible, beneficial way that promotes rather
than hinders social development.
Meaning Making and the Brain: Forging
an Interdisciplinary Research Focus on
Constructive Internal Reflection
Taken together, the neurobiological research suggests a need to
conceptualize and study processes of knowledge building that
may be supported during internally focused thought and vulner-
able to disruption by external input. The findings suggest that
these processes may span from relaxed mind wandering and
daydreaming to intense and effortful internal focus. Relaxed
daydreaming is potentially important for deriving and sifting
through the social and emotional implications of everyday situ-
ations and relationships and connecting them to personal expe-
riences and future goals (see also Baird, Smallwood, & Schooler,
2011); effortful internal focus is potentially important for mak-
ing meaning of new information and for distilling creative,
emotionally relevant connections between complex ideas. We
use the term constructive internal reflection to describe this
range of skills and behaviors in the hope that future research
will flesh out and validate the dimensions of internally focused
thought and their relation to psychological constructs such as
attention, memory, abstract concepts, identity formation, critical
thinking, and socioemotional development.
Future research could also address the possibility of indi-
vidual differences in thinking during “rest” in the scanner, to
explore the naturalistic thought patterns that individuals call
up as they daydream idly or reflect purposefully, and relations
to social behavior and other developmental outcomes. For a
classic example, work by Mischel and others on self-control in
children demonstrates the beneficial effects of strategic
abstraction on the ability to delay immediate gratification
(Mischel, Ebbesen, & Zeiss, 1972; Mischel, Shoda, & Rodri-
guez, 1989). Famously, 4-year-old children who were able to
distract themselves from eating a marshmallow when left
alone with it, in order to successfully wait 15 min to obtain a
promised additional marshmallow (or other treat), later grew
into more academically and socioemotionally competent ado-
lescents and more successful adults than children who were
unable to delay their gratification for a later reward (Mischel,
Shoda, & Peake, 1988; Moffitt et al., 2011). It is interesting to
note, though, that differences in the thought strategies pre-
school children used to avoid eating the treat were associated
with how long they were able to wait: Children who distracted
themselves and avoided looking at the marshmallow did rela-
tively well. But children who instead imagined future and
hypothetical possibilities, for example, focusing on how deli-
cious the second marshmallow would taste or imagining that
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360 Immordino-Yang et al.
the marshmallow in front of them was a cloud, delayed the
longest (for reviews, see Mischel et al., 2011; Mischel et al.,
Drawing on these findings, in launching a research focus on
constructive internal reflection, our recommendation is that
the new research build from work on the primacy of meaning
making for human development—beginning with classic work
by Bruner (1990); Frankl (1946/2006); Kegan (1982);
Mezirow (2000), and others and continuing with more modern
work (see Park, 2010, for a review). This work collectively
recognizes the importance of revisiting and reorganizing one’s
memories to reconcile them with current experiences, in order
to purposefully move forward with a productive, fulfilling life.
These researchers’ theories also universally recognize the role
of internal reflection in this reconciliation process. But we
would contend that neuroscientific studies hold the potential
to offer a new view of this psychological landscape as well as
new tools to probe it—suggesting explanations and mecha-
nisms for why meaning making requires reflection as well as
an early hypothesis about how development may be reshaped
under conditions of systematically high environmental atten-
tion demands.
In conclusion, a new research focus is needed to formulate
and explore the implications of the brain’s DM functioning for
psychological development. This research would more deeply
probe the conditions under which both internally and exter-
nally focused attention become active as well as how the
development of mechanisms for monitoring and shifting
between these modes is shaped by experience, context, and
biological predispositions. As therapists, teachers, and parents
who discuss the benefits of “down time” well know, as does
anyone who has had a creative insight in the shower, rest is
indeed not idleness, nor is it a wasted opportunity for produc-
tivity. Rather, constructive internal reflection is potentially
critical for learning from one’s past experiences and appreciat-
ing their value for future choices and for understanding and
managing ourselves in the social world.
The authors thank Denny Blodget, Ginger Clark, Antonio Damasio,
David Daniel, Kaspar Meyer, Robert Rueda, Gale Sinatra, Jonathan
Smallwood, and Xiaofei Yang for their comments on an earlier ver-
sion of this article.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared that they had no conflicts of interest with
respect to their authorship or the publication of this article.
Mary Helen Immordino-Yang was supported by the Brain and
Creativity Institute Fund, by the Rossier School of Education, and by
a grant from the Office of the Provost at the University of Southern
California. Vanessa Singh was supported in part by a Valentine
Award for graduate studies at the Department of Psychology,
University of Southern California. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and
Vanessa Singh were also supported by National Institutes of Health
Grant P01 NS19632 to A. Damasio and H. Damasio.
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... Given this, one would expect that we humans would be idleness avoiders, and this is confirmed by the low levels of idleness reported in experience sampling studies (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi & Graef, 1980). Indeed, when we "rest," the default mode of our brains does not seem to be idleness at all-the default mode is a myriad of thoughts (Immordino- Yang et al., 2012). ...
... In humans, for example, this manifest itself in our brains when we are resting: typically, the brain is busy with mind wandering, recollections of previous memories, production of hypothetical scenarios and future plans and other personal and social thoughts (Immordino-Yang et al., 2012). This means that further research needs to examine if various forms of idleness would produce the same results as the idleness states in the present study. ...
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... Both male and female candidates were selected from Generation Y and Generation Z of India to verify and validate the research study. As these generations of people are more inclined and knowledgeable regarding technology and possess more disposable income, they have been selected (Immordino-Yang et al. 2012). Gen Y and Z show strong affection toward branded products (Straus et al. 2006). ...
The growing air, water, and plastic pollution, wastage of food, deforestation, and chemical manufactured products have given rise to the concept of green marketing. Nowadays, consumers are more aware of their environment and health, and they look for eco-friendly products that are free of toxic materials. Many brands have looked into these issues. Keeping in mind the consumer’s desire, they have started manufacturing eco-friendly, free of toxic and recyclable products. This study aims to determine the antecedents that will affect the purchase decisions of Generations Y and Z consumers purchasing green products from the beauty and personal care industry, which can finally lead them to become brand loyal. An explanatory research design was carried out to develop an empirical result for the study. A self-administered questionnaire was elaborated. The responses were measured through a 5-point Likert scale. The questionnaires were distributed through online mode to the respondents. The sample for the study was selected through self-selection sampling. A total of 250 responses were analyzed. The data was analyzed through structural equation modeling with the help of the statistical tool Smart-PLS version 3.3.9. The study’s findings showed that green marketing mix, brand knowledge, and culture positively affect green purchase intention and finally lead to brand loyalty. The results also depicted that the reference group moderates between green purchase intention and brand loyalty. The overall understanding of green marketing and its impacts on the consumer’s purchase decisions, which leads to brand loyalty, would help the brands establish different marketing strategies for attracting and engaging the consumer with higher consumer retention. It would help the brands to create brand image, consumer satisfaction, and trust among the consumer towards the brand.
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Mind wandering plays a significant role in the psychological construction of possible worlds. It has a functional connection with pretend play, autobiographical planning, and creativity. Because of its association with pretend play, mind wandering is a precursor of creativity and imagination. Additionally, mind wandering is involved in the preparation for alternative futures during autobiographical planning. Thus, it has a strong connection with autonoetic awareness and episodic memory. Mind wandering is also related to idea generation during the incubation stage of the creative process. Moreover, during long-term endeavors, creative individuals adopt a disposition of mindful mind wandering. By advancing research on mind wandering, we will gain more knowledge about the multiple ways human beings transcend their current experience, in addition to open new inquiries about the relationship between consciousness, memory, and creativity.
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Recent randomized experiments have found that seemingly “small” social-psychological interventions in education—that is, brief exercises that target students’ thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in and about school—can lead to large gains in student achievement and sharply reduce achievement gaps even months and years later. These interventions do not teach students academic content but instead target students’ psychology, such as their beliefs that they have the potential to improve their intelligence or that they belong and are valued in school. When social-psychological interventions have lasting effects, it can seem surprising and even “magical,” leading people either to think of them as quick fixes to complicated problems or to consider them unworthy of serious consideration. The present article discourages both responses. It reviews the theoretical basis of several prominent social-psychological interventions and emphasizes that they have lasting effects because they target students’ subjective experiences in school, because they use persuasive yet stealthy methods for conveying psychological ideas, and because they tap into recursive processes present in educational environments. By understanding psychological interventions as powerful but context-dependent tools, educational researchers will be better equipped to take them to scale. This review concludes by discussing challenges to scaling psychological interventions and how these challenges may be overcome.
People often attempt to understand other minds by using their own thoughts and experiences as a proxy for those of others, a process known broadly as simulation. Recent research in cognitive neuroscience has identified the neural bases of two forms of simulation: mirroring and self-projection. Mirroring involves a vicarious response in which a perceiver experiences the same current mental state as that of another person, and has been linked recently to brain regions that “mirror” the experiential states of others. In contrast, self-projection involves imagining oneself in the same situation as another person, predicting one’s thoughts and feelings in that hypothetical scenario and assuming that the other would think and feel the same way. This form of simulation has been linked to a set of regions known collectively as the default network and includes the medial prefrontal cortex, precuneus and posterior cingulate, and lateral parietal cortex. Although most discussions of simulation have conflated these two processes, here we describe the conceptual and empirical reasons to distinguish between self-projection and mirroring and suggest the unique role each plays in understanding others.