When attention matters: The curious incident of the wandering mind

Abstract

Attention plays an essential role in the construction of the mental models necessary to make sense of ongoing events. In this article, we consider the implications of temporary inattention during reading for the construction and updating of the situation model during text comprehension. We examined how self-reported mind wandering during reading relates to the online construction of the situation model of the narrative, which in this case involved the pseudonym used by a villain in a detective novella. In successful readers, mind wandering without awareness, referred to as zoning out, was less frequent when the text revealed a clue about the villain’s identity. Additional analyses indicated that mind wandering interfered with the construction of the situation model independent of the participants’ ability to retrieve factual information. The analysis of the temporal consequences of zoning out indicated that lapses had the greatest influence when they occurred early in the narrative. These results confirm the intuition that zoning out during reading is an indication that the construction of the situation model has gone awry, and underscore the fact that our ability to understand ongoing events depends on the ability to pay attention when it matters.

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Correspondence to Jonathan Smallwood.

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This work was supported by a grant to J.W.S. and E. Reichle from the U.S. Department of Education.

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Smallwood, J., McSpadden, M. & Schooler, J.W. When attention matters: The curious incident of the wandering mind. Memory & Cognition 36, 1144–1150 (2008). https://doi.org/10.3758/MC.36.6.1144

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Keywords

  • Situation Model
  • Text Comprehension
  • Attention Matter
  • Mind Wandering
  • Curious Incident