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Contemporary cognitive neuroscience recognises unconstrained processing varies across individuals, describing variation in meaningful attributes, such as intelligence. It may also have links to patterns of on-going experience. This study examined whether dimensions of population variation in different modes of unconstrained processing can be described by the associations between patterns of neural activity and self-reports of experience during the same period. We selected 258 individuals from a publicly available data set who had measures of resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging, and self-reports of experience during the scan. We used machine learning to determine patterns of association between the neural and self-reported data, finding variation along four dimensions. 'Purposeful' experiences were associated with lower connectivity - in particular default mode and limbic networks were less correlated with attention and sensorimotor networks. 'Emotional' experiences were associated with higher connectivity, especially between limbic and ventral attention networks. Experiences focused on themes of 'personal importance' were associated with reduced functional connectivity within attention and control systems. Finally, visual experiences were associated with stronger connectivity between visual and other networks, in particular the limbic system. Some of these patterns had contrasting links with cognitive function as assessed in a separate laboratory session - purposeful thinking was linked to greater intelligence and better abstract reasoning, while a focus on personal importance had the opposite relationship. Together these findings are consistent with an emerging literature on unconstrained states and also underlines that these states are heterogeneous, with distinct modes of population variation reflecting the interplay of different large-scale networks.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





518 - 527


Adolescent, Adult, Attention, Cerebral Cortex, Connectome, Female, Humans, Limbic System, Machine Learning, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Male, Middle Aged, Nerve Net, Rest, Thinking, Young Adult