Our mind’s eye and the role of internal attention in mental life and suffering has intrigued scholars for centuries. Yet, experimental study of internal attention has been elusive due to our limited capacity to control the timing and content of internal stimuli. We thus developed the Simulated Thoughts Paradigm (STP) to experimentally deliver own-voice thought stimuli that simulate the content and experience of thinking and thereby experimental study of internal attentional processes. In independent experiments (N = 122) integrating STP into established cognitive-experimental tasks, we found and replicated evidence that emotional reactivity to negative thoughts predicts difficulty disengaging internal attention from, as well as biased selective internal attention of, those thoughts; these internal attention processes predict cognitive vulnerability (e.g., negative repetitive thinking) which thereby predict anxiety and depression. Proposed methods and findings may have implications for the study of information processing and attention in mental health broadly and models of internal attentional (dys)control in cognitive vulnerability and mental health more specifically.
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