Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

, Volume 25, Issue 2, pp 605–611 | Cite as

Forgetting from lapses of sustained attention

  • Megan T. deBettencourt
  • Kenneth A. Norman
  • Nicholas B. Turk-Browne
Brief Report


When performing any task for an extended period of time, attention fluctuates between good and bad states. These fluctuations affect performance in the moment, but may also have lasting consequences for what gets encoded into memory. Experiment 1 establishes this relationship between attentional states and memory, by showing that subsequent memory for an item was predicted by a response time index of sustained attention (average response time during the three trials prior to stimulus onset). Experiment 2 strengthens the causal interpretation of this predictive relationship by treating the sustained attention index as an independent variable to trigger the appearance of an encoding trial. Subsequent memory was better when items were triggered from good versus bad attentional states. Together, these findings suggest that sustained attention can have downstream consequences for what we remember, and they highlight the inferential utility of adaptive experimental designs. By continuously monitoring attention, we can influence what will later be remembered.


Goal-directed attention Distraction Episodic memory Real time 



This work was supported by NSF fellowship DGE1148900, NIH grant R01 EY021755, and Intel Corporation. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of these funding agencies.

Author contributions

All authors helped conceive the study and contributed to the study design. M.T. deBettencourt collected and analyzed the data under the supervision of K.A. Norman and N.B. Turk-Browne. M.T. deBettencourt wrote an initial draft of the manuscript, which all authors read and edited.

Supplementary material

13423_2017_1309_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (309 kb)
Supplemental Figure 1 The development and endurance of attentional lapses. a At various window sizes, the average RT before a correct response was slower than before an incorrect response. ΔRT indicates the RT difference, correct minus incorrect. b The slope of the logistic function, β, was reliably positive for each window size. A positive slope indicates that slower RTs led to greater probability that an infrequent trial would be later remembered. c At each lag (window size = 1), the RT before a correct response was slower than before an incorrect response. d The slope of the logistic function was positive for each lag, though only reliably so for lag –1. Individual participants are depicted in gray circles. The average is the solid black circle and the error bars depict 95% CIs. ***p < 0.001, *p < 0.05, ~p < 0.1 (PDF 308 kb)


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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Megan T. deBettencourt
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • Kenneth A. Norman
    • 1
    • 4
  • Nicholas B. Turk-Browne
    • 1
    • 4
  1. 1.Princeton Neuroscience InstitutePrinceton UniversityPrincetonUSA
  2. 2.Institute for Mind and BiologyUniversity of ChicagoChicagoUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUniversity of ChicagoChicagoUSA
  4. 4.Department of PsychologyPrinceton UniversityPrincetonUSA

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