Picture the scene: it’s a hot Friday afternoon, you’re sitting
at your desk trying to concentrate, but you can’t help thinking
about what lies ahead at the weekend, your eyes begin to glaze
Sound familiar? You’re not alone if this ever happens to you.
Research suggests that mind wandering, or zoning out, happens 20-40
percent of the time depending on the task or environmental context.
So there’s nothing to feel guilty about per se for letting
your attention lapse, but it has been found to have a negative
effect on performance. Not only does it increase error rates in
signal detection, but it can result in poor memory recall and
ability to comprehend while reading.
That could all be about to change, though. Researchers from the
University of Notre Dame, Illinois and the University of Memphis
believe they have found a solution to keep us focussed on the task
in hand. Last week at the UMAP conference in Aalborg,
Denmark, Robert Bixler and Sidney D’Mello presented their
system for autonomously detecting and correcting mind wandering in
The researchers have developed software that can detect when a
person’s attention has shifted away from what they’re supposed to
be doing by tracking their eye movements as they look at a screen
and pausing the session if they think the user has lost
concentration. The tracking device can watch how the eyes move, how
they fixate on words and the patterns of how the eyes travel across
In the study detailing the system, Bixler and D’Mello reveal that
they could predict mind wandering with 72 percent accuracy and when
the subject was probed at the end of the page and 59 percent
accuracy they were probed in the middle of the page. The pair use
the paper to discuss ways in which this could be changed.
Eventually, D’Mello tells Wired.co.uk, he sees the system being
used in education. Students minds have been found to wander
frequently during reading — around 30 percent of the time — and
even more so when they are viewing lectures online (40-50 percent
of the time), he says. “An intelligent interface that incorporates
our mind wandering detectors can intervene by reorienting attention
and highlighting content ostensibly missed due to mind wandering.”
Similarly, it could prove useful to teachers, who could use it to
find out what material is most engaging.
D’Mello also sees room for the technology in the military and
the air traffic control sectors, where concentration is of vital
importance. “As interfaces become increasingly automated, humans
have been delegated to an observer role where they have to mainly
monitor the interface and intervene when problems are detected.
These vigilance tasks are exceedingly monotonous and a catalyst for
mind wandering,” he points out. The mind wandering interface could
spot if a human operator was starting to zone and intervene before
In terms of commercialising the system, discussions are
currently under way, says D’Mello.