Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

, Volume 14, Issue 3, pp 527–533 | Cite as

The lights are on but no one’s home: Meta-awareness and the decoupling of attention when the mind wanders

  • Jonathan SmallwoodEmail author
  • Merrill McSpadden
  • Jonathan W. Schooler
Brief Reports


In a recent review, we suggested that an important aspect of mind-wandering is whether participants are aware that they are off task (Smallwood & Schooler, 2006). We tested this hypothesis by examining the informationprocessing 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.


Response Time Response Inhibition Verbal Report Target Probability Short Response Time 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Ericsson, K. A., &Simon, H. (1980). Verbal reports as data.Psychological Review,87, 215–251.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Jacoby, L. L. (1998). Invariance in automatic influences of memory: Toward a user’s guide for the process-dissociation procedure.Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition,24, 3–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Jennings, J. M., &Jacoby, L. L. (1993). Automatic versus intentional uses of memory: Aging, attention, and control.Psychology & Aging,8, 283–293.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Manly, T., Robertson, I. H., Galloway, M., &Hawkins, K. (1999). The absent mind: Further investigations of sustained attention to response.Neuropsychologia,37, 661–670.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Mason, M. F., Norton, M. I., Van Horn, J. D., Wegner, D. M., Grafton, S. T., &Macrae, C. N. (2007). Wandering minds: The default network and stimulus-independent thought.Science,315, 393–395.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Nisbett, R. E., &Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes.Psychological Review,134, 231–259.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Robertson, I. H., Manly, T., Andrade, J., Baddeley, B. T., &Yiend, J. (1997). Oops: Performance correlates of everyday attentional failures in traumatic brain injured and normal subjects.Neurospsychologia,35, 747–758.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Sato, B., Fischer, D. A., Henry, G. W., Laughlin, G., Butler, R. P., Marcy, G. W., et al. (2005). The N2K Consortium: II. A transiting hot Saturn around HD 149026 with a large dense core.Astrophysical Journal,633, 465–473.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Schooler, J. W. (2002). Re-representing consciousness: Dissociations between experience and meta-consciousness.Trends in Cognitive Sciences,6, 339–344.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Schooler, J. W., &Schreiber, C. A. (2004). Consciousness, metaconsciousness, and the paradox of introspection.Journal of Consciousness Studies,11, 17–39.Google Scholar
  11. Singer, J. L. (1966).Daydreaming: An introduction to the experimental study of inner experience. New York: Random House.Google Scholar
  12. Smallwood J., Baraciaia, S. F., Lowe, M., &Obonsawin, M. C. (2003). Task unrelated thought whilst encoding information.Consciousness & Cognition,12, 452–484. or]Smallwood, J., Beech, E., Schooler, J. W., & Handy, T. C. (in press). Going AWOL in the brain—Mind wandering reduced the cortical processing of the task environment.Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Smallwood, J., Fishman, D. J., &Schooler J. W. (2007). Counting the cost of the absent mind: Mind-wandering as an underrecognized influence on educational performance.Psychonomic Bulletin & Review,14, 230–236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Smallwood, J., Heim, D., Riby, L., &Davies, J. D. (2006). Encoding during the attentional lapse: Accuracy of encoding during the semantic SART.Consciousness & Cognition,5, 218–231.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Smallwood, J., O’Connor, R. C., Sudbery, M. V., &Obonsawin, M. (2007). Mind-wandering and dysphoria.Cognition & Emotion,21, 816–842.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Smallwood, J., &Schooler, J. W. (2006). The restless mind.Psychological Bulletin,132, 946–958.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jonathan Smallwood
    • 2
    Email author
  • Merrill McSpadden
    • 1
  • Jonathan W. Schooler
    • 1
  1. 1.University of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada
  2. 2.School of PsychologyUniversity of AberdeenAberdeenScotland

Personalised recommendations