Attention is not a simple thing

A recent paper (citation below) by a Canadian group led by J. Kam has looked at the effects of mind wandering on motor adjustments during a task. Among other interesting results, they indicate that the top-down control of attention is complex and not a single process. Nothing is ever as simple as it first appears.


In their conclusions, they write:

In particular, mind wandering is a phenomenon that spans an extended period of time (i.e., fluctuations of 10–15 s) exceeding a given single event, whereas attentional lapses tend to occur during a much narrower time window capturing the lapse at a single event level. Several recent theoretical and empirical papers have supported and validated these two related models of attention. Specifically, at a theoretical level, Dosenbach and colleagues have suggested there are multiple controlling systems operating at multiple scales of time. Further, in terms of empirical evidence, the findings of Esterman and colleagues suggested the occurrence of two attentional states—one tied to the default mode network (reflective of mind wandering) that is more stable and less error prone in terms of behavioral measures, and a second one tied to the dorsal attention network (reflective of attentional lapses) that requires more effortful processing. That the effects of mind wandering appear to parallel effects of attentional lapses actually lends support to the notion that task-related attention (or mind wandering) and selective attention (or attentional lapses) may exert similar forms of top–down attentional control on other neurocognitive processes. In the case of attentional control of sensory response, it has been suggested that there are at least two distinct control systems operating in parallel—one associated with rapid shifts of selective visual attention and another one associated with slower fluctuations in task-related attention . In the case of behavioral control, that Weissman and colleagues have demonstrated that attentional lapses impair goal-directed behavior and are associated with reduced pre-stimulus activation in the anterior cingulate cortex and that we found impaired adjustment of behavioral control are consistent with the idea that varying attentional control systems appear to have similar impact on various neurocognitive processes. Taken together, mind wandering and attentional lapses do appear to be related conceptually, but future work needs to be done to disentangle the overlaying attentional influences linked to dissociable neural systems.


Here is the abstract:

Mind wandering episodes have been construed as periods of “stimulus-independent” thought, where our minds are decoupled from the external sensory environment. In two experiments, we used behavioral and event-related potential (ERP) measures to determine whether mind wandering episodes can also be considered as periods of “response-independent” thought, with our minds disengaged from adjusting our behavioral outputs. In the first experiment, participants performed a motor tracking task and were occasionally prompted to report whether their attention was “on-task” or “mind wandering.” We found greater tracking error in periods prior to mind wandering vs. on-task reports. To ascertain whether this finding was due to attenuation in visual perception per se vs. a disruptive effect of mind wandering on performance monitoring, we conducted a second experiment in which participants completed a time-estimation task. They were given feedback on the accuracy of their estimations while we recorded their EEG, and were also occasionally asked to report their attention state. We found that the sensitivity of behavior and the P3 ERP component to feedback signals were significantly reduced just prior to mind wandering vs. on-task attentional reports. Moreover, these effects co-occurred with decreases in the error-related negativity elicited by feedback signals (fERN), a direct measure of behavioral feedback assessment in cortex. Our findings suggest that the functional consequences of mind wandering are not limited to just the processing of incoming stimulation per se, but extend as well to the control and adjustment of behavior.

Kam, J., Dao, E., Blinn, P., Krigolson, O., Boyd, L., & Handy, T. (2012). Mind wandering and motor control: off-task thinking disrupts the online adjustment of behavior Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6 DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2012.00329

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