Pelagatti C, Binda P, Vannucci M (2020)
A closer look at the timecourse of mind wandering: Pupillary responses and behaviour.
PLOS ONE 15(4): e0226792
Mind wandering (MW) refers to the shift of attention away from a primary task and/or external environment towards thoughts unrelated to the task. Recent evidence has shown that pupillometry can be used as an objective marker of the onset and maintenance of externally-driven MW episodes. In the present study we aimed to further investigate pupillary changes associated with the onset and duration of self-reported MW episodes. We used a modified version of the joint behavioural-pupillometry paradigm we recently introduced. Participants were asked to perform a monotonous vigilance task which was intermixed with task-irrelevant cue-phrases (visually presented verbal cues); they were instructed to interrupt the task whenever a thought came to mind (self-caught method) and to indicate the trigger of their thought, if any. We found systematic pupil dilation after the presentation of verbal cues reported to have triggered MW, compared with other verbal cues presented during a supposedly on-task period (i.e., the period immediately following the resuming of the task after a self-caught interruption and MW report). These results confirm that pupil diameter is sensitive to the changes associated with the onset of MW and its unfolding over time. Moreover, by computing the latency between the trigger presentation and the task interruption (self-catch), we could also estimate the duration of MW episodes triggered by verbal cues. However, a high variability was found, implying very large inter-event variability, which could not be explained by any of the MW properties we acquired (including: temporal focus, specificity, emotional valence). Our behavioural and pupillometry findings stress the need for objective measures about the temporal unfolding of MW (while most studies focus on arbitrary time-window preceding self-reports of MW).