Task unrelated thought: the role of distributed processing

Marc Obonsawin, J. Smallwood, D. Heim

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

85 Citations (Scopus)


Task unrelated thought (TUT) refers to thought directed away from the current situation; for example, a day dream. Encapsulated models of cognition propose that qualitative changes in consciousness, i.e., the production of TUT, can be explained in terms of changes in the quantity of resources deployed for task completion. In contrast, distributed models of cognition emphasize the importance of holistic processes in the generation and maintenance of task focus and are consistent with the effects of higher order variables such as schemata. Three experiments were conducted on healthy participants using a categorical stimulus organization to contrast distributed and encapsulated views of cognition. Experiments 1 and 2 showed that despite the increased difficulty of the alphabetical verbal fluency task fewer TUTs were produced during category fluency condition. Experiment 3 replicated the categorical suppression of TUT while encoding and recalling information in a memory task. The results of these three experiments support the predictions derived from models of cognition emphasizing the importance of stimulus organization in the generation and maintenance of task focus and have potential importance for the scientific evaluation of cognition.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)169-189
Number of pages20
JournalConsciousness and Cognition
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2003


  • distributed processing
  • personality
  • educational psychology
  • brain
  • human brain
  • cognition

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