Gaze-Based Signatures of Mind Wandering During Real-World Scene Processing

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Physiological limitations on the visual system require gaze to move from location to location to extract the most relevant information within a scene. Therefore, gaze provides a real-time index of the information-processing priorities of the visual system. We investigated gaze allocation during mind wandering (MW), a state where cognitive priorities shift from processing task-relevant external stimuli (i.e., the visual world) to task-irrelevant internal thoughts. In both a main study and a replication, we recorded the eye movements of college-aged adults who studied images of urban scenes and responded to pseudorandom thought probes on whether they were mind wandering or attentively viewing at the time of the probe. Probe-caught MW was associated with fewer and longer fixations, greater fixation dispersion, and more frequent eyeblinks (only observed in the main study) relative to periods of attentive scene viewing. These findings demonstrate that gaze indices typically considered to represent greater engagement with scene processing (e.g., longer fixations) can also indicate MW. In this way, the current work exhibits a need for empirical investigations and computational models of gaze control to account for MW for a more accurate representation of the moment-to-moment information-processing priorities of the visual system.

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