Attentional lapses have been found to impair everything from basic perception to learning and memory. Yet, despite the well-documented costs of lapses on cognition, recent work suggests that lapses might unexpectedly confer some benefits. One potential benefit is that lapses broaden our learning to integrate seemingly irrelevant content that could later prove useful—a benefit that prior research focusing only on goal-relevant memory would miss. Here, we measure how fluctuations in sustained attention influence the learning of seemingly goal-irrelevant content that competes for attention with target content. Participants completed a correlated flanker task in which they categorized central targets (letters or numbers) while ignoring peripheral flanking symbols that shared hidden probabilistic relationships with the targets. We found that across participants, higher rates of attentional lapses correlated with greater learning of the target–flanker relationships. Moreover, within participants, learning was more evident during attentional lapses. These findings address long-standing theoretical debates and reveal a benefit of attentional lapses: they expand the scope of learning and decisions beyond the strictly relevant.
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We would like to thank Henrique Matulis for assistance programming the experiment, and Kiara Lu, Theresa Pham, Danielle Lim, Noel Yuen, Lavania Jeganathan, Christa Shi, and Luosha Ha for their help with data collection. This research was supported by an Ontario Graduate Scholarship and an Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) graduate fellowship to M.D., an Ontario Graduate Scholarship and Brain Canada Kids Brain Network Scholarship to A.D., NSERC Discovery Grants (A.S.F.:RGPIN-2016-05; KD:RGPIN/05582-201) and Canada Foundation for Innovation and Ontario Research Foundation (A.S.F.: 34947; K.D.:34479).
The authors declare no competing interest.
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The datasets and code generated during and/or analyzed during the current study are available at the following link:
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Decker, A., Dubois, M., Duncan, K. et al. Pay attention and you might miss it: Greater learning during attentional lapses. Psychon Bull Rev 30, 1041–1052 (2023). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-022-02226-6