Mind Wandering

As part of a collaboration with Dr. Paul Seli, I have also studied our unending habit of mind-wandering. While cognitive scientists would like to pretend that people are faithfully attending to their assigned tasks at all times, the reality is that much of our time is spent doing some sort of mind-wandering. So, it’s important to understand what our minds are doing when they wander.

In one study, we investigated a seemingly paradoxical result in the psychological literature. Traditionally, researchers have thought of mind-wandering as a type of failure in executive control: we mind-wander when we fail to focus on the task at hand. However, even though older adults have been shown to have less executive control than younger adults, research has shown that older adults actually mind-wander less than their younger counterparts! We proposed that this result could be explained if older adults were simply more motivated than younger adults to do the tasks that we assigned them. And this is exactly what we found: whereas older adults were highly motivated to perform simple and boring tasks, younger adults were less motivated. Not only did this difference in motivation explain the difference in mind-wandering, but we also showed that the difference in mind-wandering could be eliminated if we paid the younger adults an additional bonus for performing well at our task (Seli et al., 2021).

In another study, we investigated different properties of mind-wandering. It is common to measure an instance of mind-wandering as a thought that is unrelated (whether intentionally or unintentionally) to the task at hand. But, psychologists have also proposed that mind-wandering could be defined as a lack of attentional constraints which allows thoughts to flow freely from one to another. Do these definitions agree on what mind-wandering is, or do they index different dimensions of mind-wandering? When comparing self-reports, we found that these dimensions were indeed separable, suggesting that studies focusing on one definition might show different results under a different definition (O’Neill et al., 2021).

Finally, some ongoing work with Dr. Kristina Krasich studies how people move their eyes when their minds wander. Normally, vision scientists find that when people fixate on a stimulus for a longer period of time, it is because they are attending to it so that they can process it more deeply. But recent studies have shown that when people mind-wander, they also tend to fixate for longer periods of time. So do longer fixations indicate that people are paying more or less attention? Using a computational model of scene viewing, we showed that when people attend to a stimulus, the evidence accumulation process controlling eye movements operates more slowly to gather important information. In contrast, when people mind-wander, this process is simply more variable, and it is this variability that causes people to fixate longer on average. This finding agrees with other work showing that people are more variable when they mind-wander.

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