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Single-minded in her mind-wandering research



Jessica Stuart '09 received a $5,000 research grant given by the Psi Chi, the national psychology honors society, and by the Association for Psychological Sciences.

Amid an aisle of soup cans, a grocery shopper may scan a list of food items he needs: eggs, milk, cereal and soup. His eyes shift from the list to the shelves, seeking a can of chicken noodle soup.

He’s just task-switched, says Kate Arrington, professor of psychology, who defines activities that require rapidly switching between different cognitive processes, such as grocery shopping, as multi-task behavior.

“It takes a quarter of a second to move your eyes from the sheet to the shelf, but you are no longer reading but doing object recognition,” she says. Although the two tasks require different cognitive processes, usually the mind shifts between the two almost flawlessly.

However some things, such as mind wandering, may hinder a person's ability to switch tasks.

This summer, Arrington oversaw a research project by Jessica Stuart ’09 that examined the effect of mind wandering on multi-task behaviors. A psychology major and sociology minor, Stuart applied and was accepted to receive a $5,000 summer research grant given by Psi Chi, the national psychology honors society, and by the Association for Psychological Sciences. Only 14 grants are awarded nationwide.

Stuart “did an amazing job putting together the proposal.” Arrington says the grant not only honors Stuart, “it’s affirming that what we are doing is important to the psychological community.”

With help from Arrington and Starla Weaver, a doctoral candidate in psychology, Stuart designed an experiment to measure the effects of mind wandering.

“I thought it might affect everyone on a daily basis,” Stuart says. “I know it affects me all the time. And it has important implications in all kinds of setting.” For example, she says, many students daydream during a professor’s lecture.

Stuart asked 32 volunteers to complete two separate tests. During the tests, a computer screen showed subjects a number between one and nine, excluding five, and asked subjects to determine if the number was either odd or even or if it was higher or lower than five.

In the second test, the subjects selected the tasks they wanted to complete. Stuart requested that they complete the same number of odd-even as high-low tasks and that they select the tasks in a random order. Stuart explains that the second test requires more cognitive control—the ability to direct their attention, memory and motor processes to achieve a goal—than the first test.

During both tests, a thought probe appeared on the computer screen every minute to 90 seconds. The probe required the subjects to report whether they were thinking about the task.

Stuart then compared subjects’ performance when they reported mind wandering to their performance when they were paying attention to the task.

She discovered that mind wandering inhibited a person’s ability to complete the task. When mind wandering, the subjects were less likely to switch tasks and had slower reaction times when they did switch.

"A very bright, motivated, organized student"

At the end of the summer, Stuart reported her results to Psi Chi, and Arrington plans to include them in a larger study currently underway. Stuart, Arrington and Weaver will present their results during the Eastern Psychological Association regional conference in March.

“She was fantastic—a very bright, motivated, organized student. She’s a great representative of what many of our students at Lehigh are,” Arrington says. Next summer, Arrington hopes to mentor another Psi Chi student from Lehigh or another university.

This year, Arrington is advising Stuart’s honors thesis, which will, in a way, expand upon the work she did this summer. Stuart will use similar tests to examine ways anxiety affects attention and task switching.

Stuart helped Heidi Grant, professor of psychology, research motivation last year. Outside of the psychology lab, Stuart plays numerous intramural sports, and she is the secretary for the Residence Hall Association. Her involvement in community service caused her to take a winter break trip with the Community Service Office to aid Hurricane Katrina victims in Mississippi.

After graduation, Stuart will spend a year deciding whether she will pursue an advanced degree in psychology or enroll in law school. Wherever she goes, she believes her work in psychology will benefit her.

“The type of information I’m learning isn’t something I’ll forget about. I think I’ll use it, even if I’m going in law,” Stuart says.

When asked if her research helped her focus, Stuart explained that no one has found a way to prevent mind wandering yet.

“When I was reading mind-wandering research, I would find myself mind wandering,” she quips.

--Becky Straw


Posted on Tuesday, October 07, 2008

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