Thought dynamics under task demands

Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance (forthcoming)
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As research on mind wandering has accelerated, the construct’s defining features have expanded and researchers have begun to examine different dimensions of mind wandering. Recently, Christoff and colleagues have argued for the importance of investigating a hitherto neglected variety of mind wandering: “unconstrained thought,” or, thought that is relatively unguided by executive-control processes. To date, with only a handful of studies investigating unconstrained thought, little is known about this intriguing type of mind wandering. Across two experiments, we examined, for the first time, whether changes in task demand influence rates of constrained versus unconstrained thoughts. In both experiments, participants completed either an easy (0-back) or hard (2-back) task and responded to intermittently presented thought probes that gauged thought constraint throughout the task. In Experiment 1, we found that participants completing the easy task engaged in unconstrained thoughts more frequently than those completing the difficult task. In Experiment 2, we replicated this result and further demonstrated manipulations of unconstrained thought while also measuring task-relatedness (a common dimension of mind wandering). Finally, exploratory analyses showed associations between constrained thought and age, verbal intelligence, and an assessment of flow (‘deep effortless concentration’), thereby adding further evidence to indicate a dissociation between task-relatedness and constraint. We discuss the methodological and theoretical applications of our findings to the burgeoning field of research on unconstrained thought.



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Samuel Murray
Providence College

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