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.
Buckner, R. L., & Vincent, J. L. (2007). Unrest at rest: Default network activity and spontaneous network correlations. NeuroImage, 37, 1091–1097.
Chafe, W. L. (1979). The flow of thought and language. In T. Givón (Ed.), Syntax and semantics: Vol. 12. Discourse and syntax (pp. 159–181). New York: Academic Press.
Conan-Doyle, A. (2001a). Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. In E. Glinert (Ed.), The adventures and memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. London: Penguin. (Original work published 1892)
Conan-Doyle, A. (2001b). Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. In E. Glinert (Ed.), The adventures and memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. London: Penguin. (Original work published 1894)
Donchin, E., & Coles, M. G. (1988). Is the P300 component a manifestation of context updating? Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 11, 357–427.
Garnham, A., Garrod, S., & Sanford, A. (2006). Observations on the past and future of psycholinguistics. In M. J. Traxler & M. A. Gernsbacher (Eds.), Handbook of psycholinguistics (2nd ed., pp. 1–18). Amsterdam: Elsevier.
Gernsbacher, M. A. (1990). Language comprehension as structure building. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Gernsbacher, M. A., Varner, K. R., & Faust, M. (1990). Investigating differences in general comprehension skill. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 16, 430–445.
Gerrig, R. J., & O’Brien, E. J. (2005). The scope of memory-based processing. Discourse Processes, 39, 225–242.
Givón, T. (1992). The grammar of referential coherence as mental processing instructions. Linguistics, 30, 5–55.
Glenberg, A. M., Meyer, M., & Lindem, K. (1987). Mental models contribute to foregrounding during text comprehension. Journal of Memory & Language, 26, 69–83.
Graesser, A. C., & Clark, L. F. (1985). Structure and procedures of implicit knowledge. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
Graesser, A. C., Singer, M., & Trabasso, T. (1994). Constructing inferences during narrative text comprehension. Psychological Review, 101, 371–395.
Johnson-Laird, P. N. (1983). Mental models: Towards a cognitive science of language, inference, and consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Just, M. A., Carpenter, P. A., & Woolley, J. D. (1982). Paradigms and processes in reading comprehension. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 111, 228–238.
Kane, M. J., Brown, L. H., McVay, J. C., Silvia, P. J., Myin-Germeys, I., & Kwapil, T. R. (2007). For whom the mind wanders, and when: An experience-sampling study of working memory and executive control in daily life. Psychological Science, 18, 614–621.
Kramer, A. F., & Strayer, D. L. (1988). Assessing the development of automatic processing: An application of dual-task and event-related potential methodologies. Biological Psychology, 26, 231–267.
Mandler, J. M., & Johnson, N. S. (1977). Remembrance of things parsed: Story structure and recall. Cognitive Psychology, 9, 111–151.
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.
McCrudden, M. T., Schraw, G., & Kambe, G. (2005). The effect of relevance instructions on reading time and learning. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97, 88–102.
McKiernan, K. A., D’Angelo, B. R., Kaufman, J. N., & Binder, J. R. (2006). Interrupting the “stream of consciousness”: An fMRI investigation. NeuroImage, 29, 1185–1191.
McKoon, G., Gerrig, R., & Greene, S. B. (1996). Pronoun resolution without pronouns: The consequences of memory-based text processing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 22, 919–932.
O’Brien, E. J., Albrecht, J. E., Hakala, C. M., & Rizzella, M. L. (1995). Activation and suppression of antecedents during reinstatement. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition, 21, 626–634.
Pashler, H. (1998). The psychology of attention. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Raichle, M. E., MacLeod, A. M., Snyder, A. Z., Powers, W. J., Gusnard, D. A., & Shulman, G. L. (2001). A default mode of brain function. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 16, 676–682.
Rayner, K., & Pollatsek, A. (1989). The psychology of reading. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Reichle, E., Morales, F. J., Laurent, P., Halpern, D., Smallwood, J., & Schooler, J. W. (2007). The monitoring and consequences of mind wandering during reading. Manuscript submitted for publication.
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. Neuropsychologia, 35, 747–758.
Schacter, D. L. (2001). The seven sins of memory: How the mind forgets and remembers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Schooler, J. W. (2002). Re-representing consciousness: Dissociations between experience and meta-consciousness. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 6, 339–344.
Schooler, J. W., Reichle, E. D., & Halpern, D. V. (2005). Zoning-out during reading: Evidence for dissociations between experience and meta-consciousness. In D. T. Levin (Ed.), Thinking and seeing: Visual metacognition in adults and children (pp. 203–226). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Seibert, P. S., & Ellis, H. C. (1991). Irrelevant thoughts, emotional mood states, and cognitive task performance. Memory & Cognition, 19, 507–513.
Smallwood, J., Baracaia, S. F., Lowe, M., & Obonsawin, M. C. (2003). Task unrelated thought whilst encoding information. Consciousness & Cognition, 12, 452–484.
Smallwood, J., Beach, E., Schooler, J. W., & Handy, T. C. (2008). Going AWOL in the brain: Mind wandering reduces cortical analysis of external events. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20, 458–469.
Smallwood, J., Davies, J. B., Heim, D., Finnigan, F., Sudberry, M. V., O’Connor, R. C., & Obonsawin, M. C. (2004). Subjective experience and the attentional lapse: Task engagement and disengagement during sustained attention. Consciousness & Cognition, 13, 657–690.
Smallwood, J., Fishman, D. J., & Schooler, J. W. (2007). Counting the cost of an absent mind: Mind wandering as an underrecognized influence on educational performance. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14, 230–236.
Smallwood, J., McSpadden, M., & Schooler, J. W. (2007). The lights are on but no one’s home: Meta-awareness and the decoupling of attention when the mind wanders. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14, 527–533.
Smallwood, J., O’Connor, R. C., Sudberry, M. V., & Obonsawin, M. C. (2007). Mind wandering and dysphoria. Cognition & Emotion, 21, 816–842.
Smallwood, J., & Schooler, J. W. (2006). The restless mind. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 946–958.
Stine, E. A. L., & Wingfield, A. (1990). How much do working memory deficits contribute to age differences in discourse memory? European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 2, 289–304.
Stine-Morrow, E. A. L., Miller, L. M. S., & Hertzog, C. (2006). Aging and self-regulated language processing. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 582–606.
Van den Broek, P., Virtue, S., Eversen, M. G., Tzeng, Y., & Sung, Y. (2002). Comprehension and memory of science texts: Inferential processes and the construction of a mental representation. In J. Otero, J. A. León, & A. C. Graesser (Eds.), The psychology of science text comprehension (pp. 131–154). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Wickens, C., Kramer, A., Vanasse, L., & Donchin, E. (1983). Performance of concurrent tasks: A psychophysiological analysis of the reciprocity of information-processing resources. Science, 221, 1080–1082.
Zwaan, R. A., Langston, M. C., & Graesser, A. C. (1995). The construction of situation models in narrative comprehension: An eventindexing model. Psychological Science, 6, 292–297.
Zwaan, R. A., & Radvansky, G. A. (1998). Situation models in language comprehension and memory. Psychological Bulletin, 123, 162–185.
This work was supported by a grant to J.W.S. and E. Reichle from the U.S. Department of Education.
About this article
Cite this article
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
- Situation Model
- Text Comprehension
- Attention Matter
- Mind Wandering
- Curious Incident