Theses Doctoral

Understanding the behavioral and neurocognitive relation between mind wandering and learning

Xu, Judy

In the last decade, tremendous advances have been made in the effort to understand mind wandering, yet many questions remain unanswered. Chief among them is how mind wandering relates to learning. Insofar as mind wandering has been linked to poor learning, finding ways to reduce the propensity to mind wander could potentially improve learning. Two experiments were conducted to examine this. The first experiment evaluated how difficulty of the to-be-learned materials affected one’s tendency to mind wander and revealed that people mind wandered when there was a mismatch between their level of expertise and the difficulty of materials studied. The second experiment compared whether participants were more likely to mind wander in blocked or interleaved conditions and showed that participants were more likely to mind wander when materials were presented in a blocked fashion. Together, these results indicate that techniques such as studying materials specific to one’s own level of mastery or changing the way in which one studies might reduce mind wandering and improve learning.
Of equal importance is the question of what happens on in the brain when a person mind wanders. While the effect of mind wandering on early sensory processing is known, the impact it has on learning-related processing is not. In two event-related potential (ERP) experiments, participants were asked to report whether they were mind wandering or not while studying materials they were later tested on. Analyses revealed that elaborative semantic processing – indexed by a late, sustained slow wave that was maximal at posterior parietal electrode sites – was attenuated when participants mind wandered. Crucially, the pattern when people were on task rather than mind wandering was similar to the subsequent memory effect previously reported by other memory researchers, suggesting that mind wandering disrupts the deep level of processing required for learning.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Metcalfe, Janet
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 28, 2018