Converging evidence from neuroscience suggests that our attention to the outside world waxes and wanes over time. We examined whether these periods of “mind wandering” are associated with reduced cortical analysis of the external environment. Participants performed a sustained attention to response task in which they responded to frequent “nontargets” (digits 0–9) and withheld responses for infrequent “targets” (the letter X). Mind wandering was defined both behaviorally, indicated by a failure to withhold a response to a target, and subjectively, via self-report at a thought probe. The P300 event-related potential component for nontargets was reduced prior to both the behavioral and subjective reports of mind wandering, relative to periods of being “on-task.” Regression analysis of P300 amplitude revealed significant common variance between behavioral and subjective markers of mind wandering, suggesting that both markers reflect a common underlying mental state. Finally, control analysis revealed that the effect of mind wandering on the P300 could not be ascribed to changes in motor activity nor was it associated with general arousal. Our data suggest that when trying to engage attention in a sustained manner, the mind will naturally ebb and flow in the depth of cognitive analysis it applies to events in the external environment.

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Author notes

*J. S., E. B., J. W. S., and T. C. H. all contributed equally to this work. E. B. collected the data and J. S. & T. C. H. wrote the paper. All authors discussed the results and commented on the paper.