How the stimulus influences mind wandering in semantically rich task contexts

Myrthe Faber, Sidney K. D’Mello

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review


What do we think about when we mind wander and where do these thoughts come from? We tested the idea that semantically rich stimuli yield patterns of mind wandering that are closely coupled with the stimuli compared to being more internally triggered. We analyzed the content of 949 self-reported zone outs (1218 thoughts) and 519 of their triggers from 88 participants who read an instructional text and watched a film for 20 min each. We found that mind wandering associated with memory retrieval was more frequent than prospection and introspection across both stimuli. Over 70% of autobiographical and semantic memory retrievals were triggered by the content of the stimuli, compared to around 30% for prospective and introspective thoughts. Further, latent semantic analysis revealed that semantic and unspecific memories were more “semantically” similar to their triggers than prospective and introspective thoughts, suggesting that they arise from spontaneous associations with the stimulus. These findings suggest a re-evaluation of how internal concerns and the external world give rise to mind wandering and emphasize the importance of studying mind wandering in semantically rich contexts akin to much of the real world.
Original languageEnglish
JournalCognitive research: principles and implications
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Attention
  • Comprehension
  • Memory
  • Mind wandering


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