Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Zoning Out

The American Scholar takes a look at zoning out while reading.

From the piece...

Reading is relatively well-studied; mind-wandering during reading—despite its prevalence—less so. But UC–Santa Barbara psychologist Jonathan Schooler and his colleagues have been doing their best to remedy this state of affairs.

In a typical mind-wandering study, undergraduate participants read from a literary heavyweight such as War and Peace, pressing a button each time they catch themselves losing focus. But of course readers are imperfect detectors of their own mental flights—when they’re off task they’re, well, off task. Researchers expect this, so participants are also prompted every few minutes and asked to make a decision about whether they were just zoning out. The idea, then, is to use both self-catches and prompted catches to measure how often a participant veers off task, as well as how capable she is of noticing.

The results themselves don’t tend to surprise. In a 2010 study, for instance, four undergraduates read Sense and Sensibility in its entirety (though not in a single sitting). The readers caught themselves zoning out an average of 22 times over the course of the experiment. They also reported zoning out after 9% of the prompts. These numbers seem quite respectable given that it took participants 15 hours to read Austen’s novel. But other studies, with other reading materials and different procedures, report much higher incidences of mind-wandering. Cigarette cravings, which distract participants, and alcohol, which incapacitates them, predictably lead to more zoning out.

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