Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Thoughts occur during wake as well as during dreaming sleep. Using experience sampling combined with high-density EEG, we investigated the phenomenal qualities and neural correlates of spontaneously occurring thoughts across wakefulness, non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, and REM sleep. Across all states, thoughts were associated with activation of a region of the midcingulate cortex. Thoughts during wakefulness additionally involved a medial prefrontal region, which was associated with metacognitive thoughts during wake. Phenomenologically, waking thoughts had more metacognitive content than thoughts during both NREM and REM sleep, whereas thoughts during REM sleep had a more social content. Together, these results point to a core neural substrate for thoughts, regardless of behavioral state, within the midcingulate cortex, and suggest that medial prefrontal regions may contribute to metacognitive content in waking thoughts.