Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Working Memory Capacity Does Not Always Support Future-Oriented Mind-Wandering

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology

Working Memory Capacity Does Not Always Support Future-Oriented Mind-Wandering

Article excerpt

To evaluate the claim that mind-wandering demands executive resources, and more specifically that people with better executive control will have the resources to engage in more future-oriented thought than will those with poorer executive control, we reanalyzed thought-report data from 2 independently conducted studies (J. C. McVay & M. J. Kane, 2012, Why does working memory capacity predict variation in reading comprehension? On the influence of mind wandering and executive attention, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol. 141, pp. 302-320; N. Unsworth & B. D. McMillan, in press. Mind-wandering and reading comprehension: Examining the roles of working memory capacity, interest, motivation, and topic experience. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition) on working memory capacity (WMC), mind-wandering, and reading comprehension. Both of these individual-differences studies assessed large samples of university subjects' WMC abilities via multiple tasks and probed their immediate thought content while reading; in reporting any task-unrelated thoughts (TUTs), subjects indicated whether those thoughts were about the future or the past, if applicable. In contrast to previously published findings indicating that higher WMC subjects mindwandered about the future more than did lower WMC subjects (B. Baird, J. Smallwood, & J. W. Schooler, 2011, Back to the future: Autobiographical planning and the functionality of mind-wandering, Consciousness and Cognition, Vol. 20, pp. 1604-1611), we found only weak to modest negative correlations between WMC and future-oriented TUTs. If anything, our findings suggest that higher WMC subjects' TUTs were somewhat less often future-oriented than were lower WMC subjects'. Either WMC is not truly associated with mind-wandering about the future, or we have identified some important boundary conditions around that association.

Keywords: working memory capacity, mind-wandering, individual differences, executive control

The potential association between working memory capacity (WMC) and the propensity for mind-wandering was first suggested by research indicating that individual differences in WMC predict performance on a variety of nonmemory tasks requiring executive control. That is, people with lower WMC show greater difficulty than people with higher WMC in withholding prepotent or habitual responses when they are goal-inappropriate - as in Stroop and antisaccade tasks - and in preventing salient environmental distractors from deflecting attention from goal-relevant stimuli - as in flanker-interference and dichotic-listening tasks (for reviews, see Engle & Kane, 2004; Heitz, Unsworth, & Engle, 2005; Kane, Conway, Hambrick, & Engle, 2007). On the logic that people's control over their actions and their external attentional focus should also be linked to their control over the internal stream of thought, WMC might also be expected to covary with mindwandering experiences.

Kane, Brown et al. (2007) first tested this idea by asking whether laboratory-assessed WMC (via complex memory span tasks; see Conway et al., 2005) predicted self-reported mindwandering experiences in daily life. Their experience-sampling study used personal digital assistants to randomly cue subjects, over 7 days, to categorise their immediately preceding thoughts, activities, and moods. Lower WMC subjects reported significantly more task-unrelated thoughts (TUTs) than did higher WMC subjects in cognitively demanding contexts (i.e., that were reported to require concentration or to be effortful or challenging), but not in low-demand contexts; WMC was also unrelated to the variation in mind-wandering that was driven by mood or motivation variables (such as boredom, stress, or competence). Conceptually related daily diary research (Unsworth, McMillan, Brewer, & Spillers, 2012) asked undergraduates to maintain a week-long record of their attention failures, and found that mind-wandering during class and while completing homework were among the most frequent failures that students reported. …

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