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Scene meaningfulness guides eye movements even during mind-wandering


During scene viewing, semantic information in the scene has been shown to play a dominant role in guiding fixations compared to visual salience (e.g., Henderson & Hayes, 2017). However, scene viewing is sometimes disrupted by cognitive processes unrelated to the scene. For example, viewers sometimes engage in mind-wandering, or having thoughts unrelated to the current task. How do meaning and visual salience account for fixation allocation when the viewer is mind-wandering, and does it differ from when the viewer is on-task? We asked participants to study a series of real-world scenes in preparation for a later memory test. Thought probes occasionally occurred after a subset of scenes to assess whether participants were on-task or mind-wandering. We used salience maps (Graph-Based Visual Saliency; Harel, Koch, & Perona, 2007) and meaning maps (Henderson & Hayes, 2017) to represent the distribution of visual salience and semantic richness in the scene, respectively. Because visual salience and meaning were represented similarly, we could directly compare how well they predicted fixation allocation. Our results indicate that fixations prioritized meaningful over visually salient regions in the scene during mind-wandering just as during attentive viewing. These results held across the entire viewing time. A re-analysis of an independent study (Krasich, Huffman, Faber, & Brockmole Journal of Vision, 20(9), 10, 2020) showed similar results. Therefore, viewers appear to prioritize meaningful regions over visually salient regions in real-world scenes even during mind-wandering.

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  1. 1.

    The unbiased meaning maps were correlated with salience maps at r = .60.

  2. 2.

    We, furthermore, used the R-packages BayesFactor (Version; Morey & Rouder, 2018), dplyr (Version 1.0.5; Wickham, François, Henry, & Müller, 2020), easystats (Version 0.4.0; Makowski, Ben-Shachar, & Lüdecke, 2020), knitr (Version 1.33.1; Xie, 2015), lme4 (Version 1.1.26; Bates, Mächler, Bolker, & Walker, 2015), papaja (Version; Aust & Barth, 2020), patchwork (Version 1.1.1; Pedersen, 2019), raincloudplots (Version 0.2.0; Allen, Poggiali, Whitaker, Marshall, van Langen, & Kievit, 2021), and tidyr (Version 1.1.3; Wickham & Henry, 2020).

  3. 3.

    We also conducted one-sample t tests to examine if the unique variance explained by meaning and visual salience, after removing their shared variance, was significantly greater than zero. The results (see the Appendix) show that both meaning and visual salience explained statistically significant amount of unique variance in all fixation maps.

  4. 4.

    It is also worth noting that the extraction of scene gist may be facilitated by the fact that in the present work, the same type of scenes were presented in groups. We did so out of the concern that mixing different types of scenes would induce a novelty that reduce the mind-wandering rate (Faber, Radvansky, & D’Mello, 2018).


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Correspondence to Han Zhang.

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Data, code, and stimuli for this paper are accessible at (eye-tracking analyses) and (creating meaning maps). None of the experiments were preregistered.


Appendix A: One-sample t tests of the squared semipartial correlations (unique R 2)

Main Study

Table 9 One-sample t tests examining whether meaning and visual salience explained unique variance in fixation maps

Krasich et al. (2020)

Table 10 One-sample t tests examining whether meaning and visual salience explained unique variance in fixation maps

Appendix B: Performance indices of linear mixed models in the paper

The Main Study

Table 11 Performance indices for models in Table 3
Table 12 Performance indices for models in Table 4

The Re-analysis of Krasich et al. (2020)

Table 13 Performance Indices for Models in Table 7
Table 14 Performance Indices for Models in Table 8

Appendix C: Instructions

At the beginning of the study, the experimenter announced the following to the participant:

In this task, we will show you a series of pictures on the screen. Your task is to remember each picture for a later memory test. There will be three types of pictures: exteriors (outside of a building, for example, street views), interiors (inside of a building, for example, a bedroom), and natural views (for example, mountains). These three types of pictures will be divided into three blocks. In each block, you will see only one type of pictures. Each block has a study phase and a test phase. In the study phase, we will show you 60 pictures of the same type one by one. You will have 10 s to remember each picture. In the test phase, your memory on these pictures will be tested. We will present a series of pictures, and you need to indicate whether you just saw each picture. Then, we will move on to the next block (next type of pictures). You can have a rest between blocks.

During the study, your eye movements will be recorded. We would like you to reduce your body and head movement for better tracking quality.

One last thing: during the study phase, occasionally there will be a “thought-probe” asking if you were “mind-wandering”. Here is more information (Give the following to the participant, ask them to read it, and ask them if they have any questions).

Every once in a while, the task will temporarily stop and you will be presented with a screen asking you to indicate whether you were on-task or mind-wandering just before the screen appeared. Being on-task means that, just before the screen appeared, you were focused on completing the task and were not thinking about anything unrelated to the task. Some examples of on-task thoughts include thoughts about the picture, or thoughts about your performance on the task.

On the other hand, mind-wandering means that, just before the screen appeared, you were thinking about something completely unrelated to the task. Some examples of mind-wandering include thoughts about what to eat for dinner, thoughts about plans you have with friends, or thoughts about an upcoming test.

Importantly, mind-wandering can occur either because you intentionally decided to think about things that are unrelated to the task, or because your thoughts unintentionally drifted away to task-unrelated thoughts, despite your best intentions to focus on the task. When the thought-sampling screen is presented, we would like you to indicate whether any mind-wandering you might experience is intentional or unintentional.

Please be honest in reporting your thoughts. It is perfectly normal to mind-wander during the task. Your participation credit will not be affected by those mind-wandering reports. Also, the location of the thought probes is random. Please complete the task just as usual.

Do you have any remaining questions?

Appendix D: Meaning and salience maps for each probed picture

Fig. 7

Meaning (with center bias) and GBVS salience maps for each probed picture

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Zhang, H., Anderson, N.C. & Miller, K.F. Scene meaningfulness guides eye movements even during mind-wandering. Atten Percept Psychophys (2021).

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  • Mind-wandering
  • Scene perception
  • Attention
  • Eye-tracking