Mind Wandering During Reading

Last Friday we at Daastan had Damon join us to host another interesting Instagram live session. Damon is a psychology student at University of Sussex and he has, in previous weeks, conducted informative lives about topics including “Reading for Empathy” and “Bibliotherapy: Reading for Therapy“. This time Damon conversed about the effect of Mind Wandering during reading.


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What is Mind Wandering?

We need to pay attention to what we are reading in order to comprehend texts. Sometimes, however, no matter how hard we try to stay focused, our thoughts run away to other places. We start suffering from Mind Wandering (also defined as daydreaming or zoning out).

In a frustrating (but also quite funny) manner, our mind starts wandering away to completely unrelated locations; locations that have nothing to do with the text in front of us. For instance, you might be reading a paper about 19th century demonstrations in Europe and then all of the sudden you initiate an internal debate with yourself about whether you should have chicken or fish for dinner. In fact, it is highly likely that your attention will drift away at some point while you read this blog. Unrelated thoughts revolving your upcoming weekend plans might crash your reading process – or something your mom told you 5 years ago might just re-visit your memory. 

Everybody Daydreams

Mind Wandering is a very common phenomena. Estimation reports indicate that students mind wander approximately 40% of the time when attending online lectures and similarly, technological investigations have shown to occur approximately 30% of the time during computerized reading. Research also shows that people’s thoughts float away to items unrelated to the text about 35% of the time during silent reading. 

How is Mind Wandering Measured During Reading?

Researchers normally measure mind wandering during reading in 2 different ways: through either self-caught or probe-caught sampling. 

“Probe-caught sampling” is the method most used. Probe-caught sampling requires participants to read texts on a computer. Their reading is sporadically interrupted by pop-up windows or auditory cues that ask them to report whether they were focused. This method enables mind wandering changes to be reported throughout reading tasks and provides accurate measures of the frequency of zoning out. 

A less popular measurement method is “self-caught sampling”. In self-caught sampling experiments, participants have to self-report every time they catch themselves wandering off. This method is less reliable because sometimes we drift away with our thoughts without realizing it. Another disadvantage of self-caught sampling is that participants can report as many episodes as they like. This might sound like a good idea at first glance, but we can imagine that some might feel embarrassed to report the amount of times their thoughts wandered away to cookies, crackers, and cotton candy

Eye Tracking Measures

Researchers have also used eye tracking measures to detect what instigates zoning out during reading. Studies within this field have found that our eye movements before mind wandering episodes differ from those preceding usual reading moments. When we wander off, our reading time is slower, the duration of eye fixation on a specific point is longer, we blink more and the eye moves less systematically. It is interesting, isn’t it? 

Theories Into Why We Mind Wander During Reading

So why is it that we cannot sustain our attention even when we try our best to do so? There are currently two wide-held theories of that govern the literature: the resource competition theory and the executive control failures theory. 

The resource competition account explains that both engaging in a primary activity (such as reading) and engaging in mind wandering requires energy from the mind’s limited cognitive resources. Limited cognitive resources means that our brain cannot do too many things at once, its capacity is basically limited. More demanding primary tasks requisite more cognitive resources. This means that less resources will be available for secondary tasks.

Therefore, the resource competition theory argues that mind wandering should appear only when tasks are easygoing. That is because we have more space available to float away with our thoughts. Several laboratory-based studies have supported this theory. 

Oppositely, the executive control failures theory’s central argument is that mental control is crucial for accomplishment of primary tasks. The explanation behind this assertion is that a goal associated with a task (the goal to understand a text) will remain within the spotlight of attention. When executive control fails, other goals that are currently active (e.g., the goal to email your colleague and provide them work information) may enter the focus of attention and disturb the primary task (i.e., comprehending the text). This disturbance is thus followed by the experience of mind wandering, and it is not until control is re-established that attention on the primary task is re-gained.

On this account, the essence of the executive control failures theory is that people with stronger control capabilities should have an easier time blocking the thought of unrelated goals from entering the spotlight of attention. This belief is popular among researchers and studies using laboratory reading tasks to demonstrate the effect of control capability. 

Evidence in Support of Both Theories

As mentioned above, there is evidence supporting both theories of mind wandering. We have evidence supporting the resource competition account, showing that mind wandering can be recurring during execution of low-pressure tasks – because we have more availability to fly away with our thoughts. Simultaneously, though, we have evidence backing up the executive control failures account. Many experiments have found that as text difficulty increased, mind wandering would also increase.

… So Which Theory Reigns Supreme?

Researchers Alexander Soemer and Ulrich Schiefele recently conducted research to resolve the incongruity of previous studies and their diverging findings regarding the effect of text difficulty on mind wandering. They also examined effects of text topic interest on comprehension and mind wandering. Different from previous studies, they increased their sample size and recruited 216 individuals to participate. Participants read one of 3 types of texts that concerned topics relating to either physics, marketing or psychology. Each text had 3 distinct difficulty levels prescribed to it: they were either easy, moderate, or difficult. 

Once participants started reading, they were interrupted in 60-90s intervals by pop-up squares that showed up on their screen. When this happened, they had to declare whether they had been daydreaming or thinking about things connected to the text. Participants selecting the mind wandering option would also have to state whether they had been involuntarily or voluntarily zoning out. 

In conclusion, Stronger measures of text difficulty correlated significantly with lower comprehension and topic interest. More difficult texts would increase the levels of both involuntary and voluntary mind-wandering, and topic interest fully mediated this effect. This means that more difficult texts were regarded as less interesting, and less interesting meant stronger degrees of mind wandering. As a consequence, reading comprehension worsened.

Indeed, we can see that a lot of recent research favors the executive control failures theory of mind wandering. For example, another study was carried out to test secondary school children’s mind wandering and reading comprehension skills. Similar to Soemer’s and Schiefele’s research, results indicated that more difficult texts produced lower topic interest, more mind wandering during reading, and worse comprehension.

Mind Wandering is Not Always Bad

In line with the findings presented above, some of you might now be asking the question: why do my thoughts still wander even when I am fully interested in a topic or text that I am reading? Well, all mind wandering does not have to be bad mind wandering! First of all, our surrounding is replete with a plethora of impressions. A myriad of distractions constantly try to catch our attention – it is fully normal to sail away with your thoughts. Although it can be frustrating sometimes, it can also be a good thing.  

To give an example, mind wandering may benefit school children’s reading comprehension if the situation is convenient. This also appertains adults. When you are reading a book, you can understand and relate to a text better if you are perhaps engaging in reflectional thinking. To apply what you are reading to your own life you have to propel your fantasy and this this type of mind wandering can facilitate beneficial cognitive processes, such as divergent thinking and future planning.

However, mind wandering in many contexts can still serve as a major issue. Like the aforementioned studies said, it can prevent comprehension and learning, and distracts us from reaching our primary goal to understand a text. 

Using Technology to Stop Mind Wandering

Advances in technology might in the future help us catch ourselves when we start mind wandering. A paper presented at the International Conference on Educational Data Mining (EDM) describes a computer software that can automatically notice when individuals start mind wandering by detecting their eye gaze during reading of instructional texts. When mind wandering is distinguished, the program poses questions just in time to encourage re-reading if needed. This type of software detection was actually tested out on participants and yielded good results. Reading comprehension deficits connected to mind wandering improved under some conditions. So this highlights the potential of technology to improve reading abilities by redirecting our stream of attention.

Other Tricks That Might Work

Obviously, technology, apps, and computer softwares cannot help us if we are reading something on paper. Besides, we cannot always access technology, and a lot of us just prefer to read physical books and texts. So are there ways to minimize mind wandering sessions during reading?

Well, we are all unique. Picking out the strategy that works best for you is an essentiality. For instance, some people concentrate really well under time pressure. Mind wandering stops for the sake of the anxiety that arises of not finishing a task in time. Diversely,  others might prefer reading when they are in a state of relaxation. That is, when they do not have to worry about beating time

Setting yourself reading goals can be a really good idea too. That way you tell yourself that you will not be reading forever and it can feel more rewarding to have realistic reading goals that are achievable.  

A little help from classical music in the background can also create a tranquil environment and bolster reading concentration! 

Check out Damon’s live session on Mind Wandering here if you have not already.

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