Subjective experience and the attentional lapse: Task engagement and disengagement during sustained attention

Jonathan Smallwood*, John B. Davies, Derek Heim, Frances Finnigan, Megan Sudberry, Rory O'Connor, Marc Obonsawin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (journal)peer-review

367 Citations (Scopus)


Three experiments investigated the relationship between subjective experience and attentional lapses during sustained attention. These experiments employed two measures of subjective experience (thought probes and questionnaires) to examine how differences in awareness correspond to variations in both task performance (reaction time and errors) and psycho-physiological measures (heart rate and galvanic skin response). This series of experiments examine these phenomena during the Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART, Robertson, Manly, Andrade, Baddeley, & Yiend, 1997). The results suggest we can dissociate between two components of subjective experience during sustained attention: (A) task unrelated thought which corresponds to an absent minded disengagement from the task and (B) a pre-occupation with one's task performance that seems to be best conceptualised as a strategic attempt to deploy attentional resources in response to a perception of environmental demands which exceed ones ability to perform the task. The implications of these findings for our understanding of how awareness is maintained on task relevant material during periods of sustained attention are discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)657-690
Number of pages34
JournalConsciousness and Cognition
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2004


  • Action slips
  • Attentional lapses
  • Awareness
  • Subjective experience
  • Sustained attention
  • Task unrelated thought


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