A Brain At Rest? Thoughts and Feelings in the “Resting State”

By Neuroskeptic | November 4, 2015 4:41 am


Neuroscientists are increasingly interested in the brain’s “resting state” – the neural activity that goes on while people are doing nothing in particular.

But how restful is rest? What do people think about when they’re “resting”? Psychologists Russell T. Hurlburt discuss this issue in a new paper called What goes on in the resting-state? A qualitative glimpse into resting-state experience in the scanner

In a study of five volunteers undergoing resting state fMRI scans, the authors report “very large individual differences in inner phenomena, suggesting that the resting-state itself may differ substantially from one participant to the next.”

In other words, maybe there is no single resting state, but lots of them.

Hurlburt et al. made use of the technique of descriptive experience sampling (DES) in which the volunteer is asked to write down whatever they are experiencing at the exact moment when a buzzer makes a “beep” sound. The beeps occur at random times, so this provides a representative sample of experience throughout the experiment.

In this study, the five participants were trained on the DES method outside the scanner, and then they did DES during a series of quite long resting state fMRI scans (writing notes on a clipboard placed next to the scanner, then elaborating on these notes after the scan).

It turns out that the participants reported quite different experiences. For instance, volunteer #5 reported “inner seeing” on 67% of the samples, compared to 19% for volunteer #1. Meanwhile, #1 reported “emotions / feelings” on just 3% of occasions, but participant #4 felt emotions on a full 22% of samples.

These statistics don’t capture the richness of the participants written experience reports. Hurlburt et al. provide some selected examples – and they say the full DES data-set is available on request:

1. (Jack, participant 1, sample 8.3) Jack is rubbing with his thumb the fabric that holds the writing board, and he feels the snagging of the fabric on his thumb. This is more a sense in his thumb than of the fabric. He is involved with determining whether this is wool or synthetic, but that is a part of the sensation, not a cognitive act. (Sensory awareness).

3. (Otto, participant 3, sample 5.5) Otto is saying in inner speech “I just turned 30.” He doesn’t know why he is saying that or to whom, but he is clear that that is what he is experiencing and that he is emphasizing the word “turned.” (Inner speaking).

And so on.

One thing the authors don’t do is report any correlations between the experiences and brain activity in the resting state. In fact the fMRI scanner was more or less a contextual detail of this paper. Presumably, the fMRI-correlates-of-experience analysis will be published in a subsequent article.

I have previously speculated that some differences in resting state fMRI activity may be driven by peoples’ different experiences in the MRI scanner, and that these experiences could be driven by the participant’s history. For instance, I think volunteers who have undergone many fMRI scans before may be more relaxed during the scan compared to first-time volunteers.

Perhaps Hurlburt et al.’s method could further explore this idea.

ResearchBlogging.orgHurlburt RT, Alderson-Day B, Fernyhough C, & Kühn S (2015). What goes on in the resting-state? A qualitative glimpse into resting-state experience in the scanner. Frontiers in Psychology, 6 PMID: 26500590

CATEGORIZED UNDER: fMRI, methods, papers, select, Top Posts
  • CL

    The sounds of the MRI are surely a big influence. Check this one out 😉


    • http://sites.google.com/site/todorovicana/ Ana Todorovic

      Definitely. I found myself thinking about helicopters and machine guns – something I almost never think about normally. But the sound fit the thoughts well.

      • practiCalfMRI

        The sounds do make a difference, which is why it’s imperative that subjects not be told to ignore the sounds! Turns out that makes us more aware of them!

        • raphael_it

          exactly… our brains are never “resting”… resting state sound to me more an excuse for “i cannot do a good paradigm and nether I will pay someone to do it for me”. You cannot control thoughts, not yours and specially not from another person! You can focus sometimes, but that needs a specific task. Otherwise, you can diverge with no boundaries. There are activations on motor areas only by thinking on motor activities. If you do some inner speak, you will probabily get language and hearing areas too. In the end, resting state is more about people that uses the time on the mri scan to think about themselves, about food, or about what they have to do or forgot to do or even about people that associate the sounds of mri scans with a song or situation (like the machine guns). (sorry my bad english)

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  • practiCalfMRI

    Neat idea but I wonder how much knowledge of the imminent reporting influenced the experienced thoughts as well as their recall. The subjects know they are going to be debriefed and that is likely to make them more mindful. Even if not told explicitly (as the subjects weren’t in this paper), the fact that I start asking you questions about your mental state after an fMRI session becomes a de facto instruction set for subsequent similar sessions. I wonder how that contrasts with a truly unguided “free thinking” state where subsequent recall is unanticipated. I’ve often wondered whether it might be possible to define a “control” for the mindfulness aspect of these approaches, e.g. in some sessions ask the subject to report on 1st person narratives and in others ask only about 3rd person narratives. Even that doesn’t actually eliminate the mindfulness and the implicit “instruction set.” I don’t have the foggiest idea what I was thinking about as I walked down to get a coffee just now, for example. I know it was work-related but I don’t remember the thoughts because I wasn’t expecting to have to recall what they were. A very circular problem, it seems to me.

    Some thoughts on that sort of thing, and an old summary of some of the caveats for resting state fMRI: http://practicalfmri.blogspot.com/2011/05/resting-state-fmri-just-what-can-we.html

    • vijay

      so perhaps you need a controlled study where people who didn’t know they’d be asked are asked to record their thoughts? and so on and so forth ad infinitum? :-)

      the thing is, I agree with what you’re saying, but the nice thing is that this seems to /confirm/ a suspicion most people had, rather than refute it. I wonder what people would have made of it if the results had shown that people were ‘broadly similar’

      also, what are the implications of this?

  • feloniousgrammar

    What do the mean by “the brain”? Or “at rest”? I take it the subjects are breathing, their hearts are pumping, they don’t go into a state of suspended animation.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Have you ever been inside an MRI tunnel? BANG BANG BANG. Yeah, “resting.” The practice of transcranial magnetic stimulation lends tremendous doubt as to whether a brain being RF scanned within a 10,000 gauss magnetic field, its proton spins being flipped and free induction decay measured, is at “rest.” Functional MRI oozes spurious interactions, such as from breathing.

    Other than those, more problems (e.g., pharmacology, claustrophobia).

    • http://www.relaxationcentre.ca Colin Stone

      Absolutely! This type of activity would be better suited to EEG measurement, but everyone seems to think their results would have more 21st-century cachet if they used fMRI rather than EEG. I use EEG to measure efficacy of relaxation techniques and it’s the only suitable technology for the job.

    • Ramon Cajal

      well I can only speak for myself, but I don’t care much about the MRI noises (which are far from capitalized bangs), rather it’s quite the opposite. I’m very comfortable inside, and tend to doze off even during complex decision tasks. So yeah, it’s very “resting” experience for some people :)

    • CL

      TMS is a completely different set of magnetic pulses that those delivered during fMRI. The scanning itself does not seem to introduce any effects.
      I agree that the method has a lot of problems, but it is the best we have.

    • Yvette Graveline

      The authors predicted your argument and actually made sure to include a non fMRI control group for this reason. Comparing data across the non fMRI group (natural setting) and fMRI, no significant phenomenological differences were found, with the exception of a difference in one factor.

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  • Aaron Kucyi

    This is an interesting topic but there is already an existing set of studies looking at fluctuating thoughts “at rest” that actually link these thoughts to brain activity. I’m not sure what these authors are adding here. Just a few examples:


    That said, mounting evidence now suggests that resting state functional connectivity is largely “intrinsic,” in that it mostly does NOT depend on ongoing, fluctuating thoughts or mind-wandering. This is why resting state networks are present during unconscious states such as dreamless sleep and anesthesia. So showing fluctuating thoughts “at rest” does not directly challenge the resting state paradigm to understand brain organization.

  • D Samuel Schwarzkopf

    I frequently hear barking dogs during fMRI pulse sequences. I don’t know why, it’s just somehow in the rhythmic high pitched noise. I haven’t participated in a lot of rest-state scans myself but I would almost certainly be hallucinating all sorts of bizarre noises during that.

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  • OWilson

    Is there really a “Resting State” for the brain?

    Consciously or unconsciously it is constantly working to monitor vital functions and, manufacturing chemicals, building materials and re-construction projects, 24/7

    It deserves a bonus :)

  • http://livingsamsara.com/ LivingSamsara

    I have never been inside an MRI tunnel and also am not very fond of enclosures. Though I’d certainly not qualify myself as claustrophobic, I just don’t care for it ;cars, planes, trains, prefer stairs to elevators, etc. I can imagine the MRI, alone, would change what my resting brain looks versus what it looks like in savasana.

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  • Art Marr

    A resting state does not need to be a resting brain!

    Here is a brief and simple argument that ‘meditative states’ actually represent the overlap of two distinct neuro-physiological states: somatic and neurologic rest. A more expansive explanation of my position, written for a lay and academic audience, is linked below, and is based in large measure on the work of the distinguished affective neuroscientist Kent Berridge of the University of Michigan, who was kind to review and endorse the extended argument.

    A Note on Resting States, Resting Brains, and Meditative States

    A resting state, or ‘somatic rest’, would seem to correspond with a brain at rest or ‘neurologic’ rest, but by definition, somatic and neurologic rest are entirely different things. A resting ‘state’ or somatic rest represents the inactivity of the striatal musculature that results from the application of resting protocols (continual avoidance of perseverative thought represented by rumination, worry, and distraction.). Resting states also are affective states, as they elicit opioid activity in the brain. Resting states in turn may occur in tandem with all levels of non-perseverative thought that are passive or active, from just passively ‘being in the moment’ or being mindful, to actively engaging in complex and meaningful cognitive behavior. The latter cognitive behavior is also additionally affective in nature due to its elicitation of dopaminergic activity, and resulting opioid-dopamine interaction results in a perceived state of ‘bliss’ or ‘flow’. On the other hand, a resting ‘brain’, neurologic rest, or the so-called ‘default mode network’ is a specific type of neural processing that occurs when the mind is in a ‘passive’ state, or in other words, is presented with no or very limited cognitive demands. This results in ‘mind wandering’ that can entail non-perseverative (creative thought) or perseverative thought (rumination, worry). As such a resting brain may or may not correlate with somatic rest, and is correlated with a level of demand, not a kind of demand, as in somatic rest.

    Like the broad color palate that emerges from the intermix of three primary colors, it may be argued that meditative states are simply emergent properties of two very distinctive neuro-physiological resting states that have separate and easily definable causes. It is remarkable that in the literature of meditation, the neuro-physiology of rest both in body and mind is not defined, with a similar neglect to explaining how neuro-muscular activity is actively shaped by experience or learning. The importance of meditation is very real, and the meditative community is understandably averse to equating it with rest since it makes meditation less ‘special’ or less marketable. But that is my argument nonetheless, which in the end provides a better advocacy of meditation by denying that meditation elicits a unique physiological process or state, which like the concept of ‘phlogiston’, or the imaginary element that enabled fire, impedes rather than furthers scientific inquiry






No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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