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Cognition. 2012 Nov;125(2):179-94. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.07.004. Epub 2012 Aug 2.

Your mind wanders weakly, your mind wanders deeply: objective measures reveal mindless reading at different levels.

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Department of Psychology, University of Potsdam, Am Neuen Palais 10, 14469 Potsdam, Germany.


When the mind wanders, attention turns away from the external environment and cognitive processing is decoupled from perceptual information. Mind wandering is usually treated as a dichotomy (dichotomy-hypothesis), and is often measured using self-reports. Here, we propose the levels of inattention hypothesis, which postulates attentional decoupling to graded degrees at different hierarchical levels of cognitive processing. To measure graded levels of attentional decoupling during reading we introduce the sustained attention to stimulus task (SAST), which is based on psychophysics of error detection. Under experimental conditions likely to induce mind wandering, we found that subjects were less likely to notice errors that required high-level processing for their detection as opposed to errors that only required low-level processing. Eye tracking revealed that before errors were overlooked influences of high- and low-level linguistic variables on eye fixations were reduced in a graded fashion, indicating episodes of mindless reading at weak and deep levels. Individual fixation durations predicted overlooking of lexical errors 5s before they occurred. Our findings support the levels of inattention hypothesis and suggest that different levels of mindless reading can be measured behaviorally in the SAST. Using eye tracking to detect mind wandering online represents a promising approach for the development of new techniques to study mind wandering and to ameliorate its negative consequences.

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