Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

The Lights Are on but No One's Home: Meta-Awareness and the Decoupling of Attention When the Mind Wanders

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

The Lights Are on but No One's Home: Meta-Awareness and the Decoupling of Attention When the Mind Wanders

Article excerpt

In a recent review, we suggested that an important aspect of mindwandering is whether participants are aware that they are off task (Smallwood & Schooler, 2006). We tested this hypothesis by examining the information-processing correlates of mind wandering with and without awareness in a task requiring participants to encode words and detect targets with either a high or a low probability. Target detection was measured via response inhibition. Mind wandering in the absence of awareness was associated with a failure to supervise task performance, as indicated by short RTs, and was predictive of failures in response inhibition. Under conditions of low target probability, mind wandering was associated with a relative absence of the influence of recollection at retrieval. The results are consistent with the notion that mind wandering involves a state of decoupled attention and emphasizes the importance of meta-awareness of off-task episodes in determining the consequences of these mental states.

It is common in many everyday situations to suddenly notice that, for some time, we have been focusing on thoughts and feelings that are unrelated to what we are doing. These often unintentional mental states are examples of daydreaming (Singer, 1 966), attentional lapses (Robertson, Manly, Andrade, Baddeley, & Yiend, 1 997), or mind wandering. In a recent review (Smallwood & Schooler, 2006), we suggested three facts about mind wandering. First, during mind wandering, performance of the primary task ceases to be supervised by attention and, instead, proceeds automatically. Second, attention switches from the primary task, and our private thoughts become the focus of awareness. Because mind wandering involves a focus on internal information, these episodes involve a state of decoupled processing, as indicated by its relation to encoding (Smallwood, Baraciaia, Lowe, & Obonsawin, 2003). Finally, the experience of catching mind wandering indicates that we often lack awareness that one is off task. The failure to recognize that one is off task suggests that mind wandering involves a temporary failure in meta-awareness. Meta-awareness refers to the ability to reflect upon the content of one's own mental state (Schooler, 2002). In this article, we combine verbal reports with performance measures to reveal for the first time the contribution that meta-awareness plays in mind wandering.

Verbal Reports

At present, we cannot independently identify whether an individual is off task, and so our strategy is to use verbal reports to indicate mind wandering. Participants can reliably report only those experiences that they have access to (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). One paradox in the study of mind wandering is that if participants are unaware that they are off task, they cannot report that they are mind wandering (Schooler & Schreiber, 2004). One recognized method for improving the effectiveness of verbal reports is to limit participants to describing the immediate content of their awareness (Ericsson & Simon, 1980). In this experiment, we intermittently probed individuals as they performed a task and asked them to describe whether, at the moment that the probe occurred, the participants were, first, mind wandering and, second, aware of this fact. Because these reports required the individual merely to report the content of their awareness, this technique ensured that we could reliably access experiences that might otherwise not be reported.

Information Processing

In science, it is possible to infer the existence of otherwise unobservable phenomena by virtue of the changes that these "invisible" entities cause in a second set of observations. For example, it is possible to demonstrate the existence of a distant planet that is too dim to be seen by virtue of the slight wobble that this body makes to the orbit of the larger body of its local star (Sato et al., 2005). In this study, we mapped mind wandering onto performance measures to examine whether changes in the awareness of mind wandering would be consistent with the temporal variations we observed in a secondary set of observations-in this case, performance measures. …

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