Many powerful human emotional thoughts are generated in the absence of a precipitating event in the environment. Here, we tested whether we can decode the valence of internally driven, self-generated thoughts during task-free rest based on neural similarities with task-related affective mental states. We acquired functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data while participants generated positive and negative thoughts as part of an attribution task (Session A) and while they reported the occurrence of comparable mental states during task-free rest periods (Session B). With the use of multivariate pattern analyses (MVPA), we identified response patterns in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC) that encode the affective content of thoughts that are generated in response to an external experimental cue. Importantly, these task driven response patterns reliably predicted the occurrence of affective thoughts generated during unconstrained rest periods recorded one week apart. This demonstrates that at least certain elements of task-cued and task-free affective experiences rely on a common neural code. Furthermore, our findings reveal the role that the mOFC plays in determining the affective tone of unconstrained thoughts. More generally, our results suggest that MVPA is an important methodological tool for attempts to understand unguided subject driven mental states such as mind-wandering and daydreaming based on neural similarities with task-based experiences.
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