Using rhythmic responding to link thought patterns, behavior, and memory

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Jalava, Shaela T.
Attention , Memory , Mind Wandering , VIsual Memory
Our proper functioning as we navigate the world relies on the fundamental ability to maintain attention on the task at hand, often over extended periods. Whether it's a security guard monitoring for potential threats or a student focusing on a crucial part of a lecture, when attentional resources drift away from the task at hand, and towards unrelated thoughts, the costs to our performance can be significant. What are the potential consequences when the mind moves away from the current task to unrelated thoughts? Such episodes of mind wandering (Smallwood & Schooler, 2006), could cause the security guard to identify the wrong suspect, or the student to miss crucial information. Indeed, the ubiquitous experience of task-unrelated thought, or mind wandering, is associated with many costs including poor reading comprehension (Schooler et al., 2004; Smallwood et al., 2008) and traffic accidents (Yanko & Spalek, 2013; 2014). In this dissertation, I aimed to investigate the behavioral correlates and downstream consequences of mind wandering, and how task demands and goal influence these associations. To achieve this, I developed a novel paradigm that allowed for the testing of spontaneous changes in attention, and tested the power of subjective and objective markers of attention in fluctuating alongside attentional states, in capturing off-task thought in the moment, and in predicting later memory performance. In the first set of experiments (Chapter 2), I assessed the reliability and validity of my paradigm, the Rhythmic Visual Response Task (RVRT), in facilitating the prediction of mind wandering using subjective and objective markers. Through a reanalysis of past datasets, I showed that objective markers are informative of attentional state, but are task-specific. In the second set of experiments (Chapter 3), I used the RVRT to demonstrate that attentional states influence memory performance, but that the associations are fragile and depend on task goals. Finally, in the third set (Chapter 4), I used an approach to capture and record ongoing thought in real time, allowing for the possibility of redirecting attention in the moment. Together, these chapters demonstrate the importance of careful consideration of the tasks, measures, operationalizations of constructs, and the interactions among these components when designing research examining task-unrelated thought.
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