Understanding Self-Generated Thought - PSY00031H

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  • Department: Psychology
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Jonny Smallwood
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2020-21

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Autumn Term 2020-21

Module aims

The human condition is characterized by thoughts and feelings that emerge with only minimal relationship to the ongoing environment, such as when we daydream about a future vacation or ruminate about a personal problem. This course considers psychological and neuroscientific advances in our understanding of these self-generated thoughts that have occurred over the last decade. It will review the emergence of research on this question from a historical perspective, consider psychological evidence for the role that these processes play in our lives, evaluate the neurocognitive evidence for how these experiences are produced. More generally this course will consider the implication of these experiences for our understanding of the mind and brain.

Module learning outcomes

  • Describe the different experimental challenges posed by the study of self-generated thought.
  • Give an account of different types of functional outcome associated with self-generated thought.
  • Describe the evidence linking different component processes linked to self-generated thought.
  • Understand the differences between resting state and task-based approaches to understanding neural organisation.
  • Understand the theoretical and historical conditions that led to the discovery of the default mode network.

Module content

  • The topics covered in the seminars will include:
  • The historical context
  • The methodological challenges posed by self-constrained thought
  • The philosophical questions that self-generated thought raise for the understanding of the mind
  • The component process account of self-generated thought
  • The neural basis of self-generated thought
  • The costs and benefits that self-generated thought bring to daily life.


Task Length % of module mark
University - closed examination
Understanding Self-Generated Thought
1.5 hours 100

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
University - closed examination
Understanding Self-Generated Thought
1.5 hours 100

Module feedback

The marks on all assessed work will be provided on e-vision.

These marks will be accompanied by module feedback forms which will be circulated by e-mail.

Students will meet supervisors in wk 6 in AuT, SpT and wk 9 in SuT to discuss their marks.

Indicative reading

Sample Reading:

Smallwood, J., & Schooler, J. W. (2006). The restless mind. Psychological bulletin, 132(6), 946.

Schooler, J. W., Smallwood, J., Christoff, K., Handy, T. C., Reichle, E. D., & Sayette, M. A. (2011). Meta-awareness, perceptual decoupling and the wandering mind. Trends in cognitive sciences, 15(7), 319-326.

Smallwood, J. (2013). Distinguishing how from why the mind wanders: a process–occurrence framework for self-generated mental activity. Psychological bulletin, 139(3), 519.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.