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Front Psychol. 2013 Sep 5;4:573. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00573. eCollection 2013.

Mind wandering at the fingertips: automatic parsing of subjective states based on response time variability.

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Laboratoire de Sciences Cognitives et Psycholinguistique, École Normale Supérieure, CNRS, EHESS Paris, France ; Université Pierre et Marie Curie Paris, France.


RESEARCH FROM THE LAST DECADE HAS SUCCESSFULLY USED TWO KINDS OF THOUGHT REPORTS IN ORDER TO ASSESS WHETHER THE MIND IS WANDERING: random thought-probes and spontaneous reports. However, none of these two methods allows any assessment of the subjective state of the participant between two reports. In this paper, we present a step by step elaboration and testing of a continuous index, based on response time variability within Sustained Attention to Response Tasks (N = 106, for a total of 10 conditions). We first show that increased response time variability predicts mind wandering. We then compute a continuous index of response time variability throughout full experiments and show that the temporal position of a probe relative to the nearest local peak of the continuous index is predictive of mind wandering. This suggests that our index carries information about the subjective state of the subject even when he or she is not probed, and opens the way for on-line tracking of mind wandering. Finally we proceed a step further and infer the internal attentional states on the basis of the variability of response times. To this end we use the Hidden Markov Model framework, which allows us to estimate the durations of on-task and off-task episodes.


Hidden Markov Models; mind wandering; response times variability; subjective report; time-course analysis

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