Dynamics of Internal Attention and Internally-Directed Cognition: The Attention-to-Thoughts (A2T) Model

Iftach Amir, Amit Bernstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The propensity to focus attention inwards is fundamental to human mental life and internally-directed cognition (IDC) [e.g., mindwandering, (mal)adaptive self-reflection]. Yet, understanding of the mechanisms through which internal attention shapes IDC is limited. We argue that understanding the systemic complexity and dynamics of how internal attention interacts with other cognitive processes can significantly facilitate our capacity to predict and model (mal)adaptive IDC. We, therefore, introduce the Attention-to-Thoughts model—a dynamic systems theory and computational model of internal attention in IDC. Through the model we aim to, first, conceptually and computationally define momentary states of this dynamic system; second, simulate and predict differential temporal trajectories of this dynamic system through which IDC emerges. Through experimental simulations, we explore how Attention-to-Thoughts may be used to better understand how internal attention selection is expressed from moment-to-moment; how internal attention unfolds by documenting how, as a function of contextual demands for focused attention, internal attentional selection iteratively transacts with working-memory and emotion; and, in turn, how maladaptive IDC (e.g., repetitive negative thinking, cognitive dyscontrol) emerges from temporal trajectories of the dynamic system of internal attention. Finally, we highlight key conceptual, computational, and methodological directions for the study of internal attention, IDC, and related phenomena (e.g., mindfulness).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)239-260
Number of pages22
JournalPsychological Inquiry
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2023 Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.


  • Internal attention
  • dynamic systems
  • internally directed cognition
  • mindwandering
  • rumination

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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