Imagery pp 27-31 | Cite as

Task-Unrelated Images and Thoughts While Reading

  • Leonard M. Giambra
  • Alicia Grodsky


The study of task-unrelated images and thoughts (TUITS) has typically been conducted during non-semantic tasks such as sustained attention or vigilance tasks. This study investigated TUIT frequency during a semantic task, reading. Reading material may differ in both difficulty and interest to the reader. While interest attracts the reader’s attention, difficulty requires the conscious control of attention. Both interest and difficulty were predicted to be inversely related to TUIT frequency. In this study, 59 men and women, 18–39 years old, recorded their TUIT frequency while reading four separate nonfiction passages (low interest-low difficulty, low interest-high difficulty, high interest-low difficulty, and high interest-high difficulty). Analyses of variance found that greater interest resulted in significantly (p <. 05) fewer TUITs. Difficulty did not significantly (p >. 05) affect TUIT frequency. Thus, interesting text attracts more attention to it and reduces attention to internal stimuli, i.e., TUITs. More difficult text did not produce fewer TUITs than less difficult texts.

Daydreaming, or mindwandering, results when an individual has thoughts and images unrelated to an ongoing task. Thus, daydreams may be operationally defined as task-unrelated images and thoughts (TUITS). Laboratory studies of TUITs have used tasks where vigilance or sustained attention is required to detect and respond to simple stimuli (see, for example, Giambra (in press) and Abrobus (1968)). These simple stimuli require relatively shallow processing. A reasonable and important extension of the laboratory work on task-unrelated images and thoughts would be to a central task requiring deep information processing, specifically, semantic processing. Reading is such a task. Not only will the study of TUITs during reading provide important information about TUITs during a semantically rich and engaging task, but it will also provide information about TUITs with an ecologically valid and ubiquitous task.

Unlike a vigilance task, reading is not transparent with regard to its salient components and requirements; for example, the person’s interest in the task and the difficulty of the task. In a vigilance task it is relatively easy to know the subject’s likely level of interest, usually very low; it is more difficult to know a subject’s interest in some reading material. Similar considerations apply in determining the difficulty of a vigilance or a reading task. Furthermore, there is likely to be a much wider range of interest and difficulty in any text material than in any vigilance task. The surest method for determining both interest and difficulty of text material is to have the individual read the material and rate its interest and difficulty. This experiment was an investigation of the influence of the subject’s interest in text and its difficulty on the likelihood of task-unrelated images and thoughts while reading that text.

How might interest and difficulty be interpreted in information processing terms so as to allow for a prediction of the influence of interest and difficulty on task-unrelated imagery and thought likelihood? Webster’s New World Dictionary (1972) defines the verb “interest” as “to excite the attention or curiosity of.” Thus, we might characterize text that is interesting as text that will attract the attention of the reader. The attraction of attention is to be construed as essentially automatic in the sense that no conscious effort of will is exercised by the person. The attention of the individual is drawn to the text since it is inherently interesting to him or her. Interest, of course, is continuous—from completely uninteresting or completely interested. The greater the interest the greater the attraction of the individual’s attention to the reading text. It is reasonable to expect that the occurrence of task-unrelated images and thoughts and the degree of one’s interest are related. Specifically, the greater the attraction of attention to a text, the less likely it would be that task-unrelated images and thoughts would occur. This should include both spontaneous (unbidden) and deliberate TUITs.

Webster’s New World Dictionary (1972) defines the adjective “difficult” as “hard to do, make, manage, understand, etc.; involving trouble or requiring extra effort, skill or thought.” When we approach a difficult task we set our mind to it in a deliberate, conscious manner. Thus, a difficult text demands that we direct and maintain our full attention to it in a conscious, controlled manner. It would follow that when our attention is fully engaged by a difficult passage that task-unrelated images and thoughts would be minimized. Thus, we would predict an inverse relationship between difficulty and TUIT likelihood.


Sustained Attention Text Material Vigilance Task Ongoing Task Simple Stimulus 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Antrobus, J. S. (1968). Information theory and stimulus-independent thought. British Journal of Psychology, 59, 423–430.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Giambra, L. M. (1989). Task-unrelated-thought frequency as a function of age: A laboratory study. Psychology and Aging, 4.Google Scholar
  3. Guralnik, D. B. (Ed.)(1972). Webster’s new world dictionary of the American language. New York: World.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • Leonard M. Giambra
    • 1
  • Alicia Grodsky
    • 1
  1. 1.Gerontology Research CenterNational Institute on AgingBaltimoreUSA

Personalised recommendations