When attention wanders: Pupillometric signatures of fluctuations in external attention.
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Cognition, ISSN: 1873-7838, Vol: 168, Page: 16-26
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- Psychology; Arts and Humanities; Social Sciences; Neuroscience
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Attention is not always directed to events in the external environment. On occasion our thoughts wander to people and places distant from the here and now. Sometimes, this lack of external attention can compromise ongoing task performance. In the current study we set out to understand the extent to which states of internal and external attention can be determined using pupillometry as an index of ongoing cognition. In two experiments we found that periods of slow responding were associated with elevations in the baseline pupil signal over three and a half seconds prior to a behavioural response. In the second experiment we found that unlike behavioural lapses, states of off-task thought, particularly those associated with a focus on the past and with an intrusive quality, were associated with reductions in the size of the pupil over the same window prior to the probe. These data show that both states of large and small baseline pupil size are linked to states when attention is not effectively focused on the external environment, although these states have different qualities. More generally, these findings illustrate that subjective and objective markers of task performance may not be equivalent and underscore the importance of developing objective indicators that can allow these different states to be understood.