An automated behavioral measure of mind wandering during computerized reading

Myrthe Faber, Robert Bixler, Sidney K. D’Mello

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review


Mind wandering is a ubiquitous phenomenon in which attention shifts from task-related to task-unrelated thoughts. The last decade has witnessed an explosion of interest in mind wandering, but research has been stymied by a lack of objective measures, leading to a near-exclusive reliance on self-reports. We addressed this issue by developing an eye-gaze-based, machine-learned model of mind wandering during computerized reading. Data were collected in a study in which 132 participants reported self-caught mind wandering while reading excerpts from a book on a computer screen. A remote Tobii TX300 or T60 eyetracker recorded their gaze during reading. The data were used to train supervised classification models to discriminate between mind wandering and normal reading in a manner that would generalize to new participants. We found that at the point of maximal agreement between the model-based and self-reported mind-wandering means (smallest difference between the group-level means: Mmodel=.310, Mself=.319), the participant-level mind-wandering proportional distributions were similar and were significantly correlated (r =.400). The model-based estimates were internally consistent (r =.751) and predicted text comprehension more strongly than did self-reported mind wandering (rmodel= −.374, rself= −.208). Our results also indicate that a robust strategy of probabilistically predicting mind wandering in cases with poor or missing gaze data led to improved performance on all metrics, as compared to simply discarding these data. Our findings demonstrate that an automated objective measure might be available for laboratory studies of mind wandering during reading, providing an appealing alternative or complement to self-reports.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)134-150
Number of pages17
JournalBehavior Research Methods
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Eye gaze
  • Machine learning
  • Mind wandering
  • Reading


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