Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Waves of Mind-Wandering in Live Performances

I'm thinking (again) about beeping people during aesthetic experiences. The idea is this. Someone is reading a story, or watching a play, or listening to music. She has been told in advance that a beep will sound at some unexpected time, and when the beep sounds, she is to immediately stop attending to the book, play, or whatever, and note what was in her stream of experience at the last undisturbed moment before the beep, as best she can tell. (See Hurlburt 2011 for extensive discussion of such "experience sampling" methods.)

I've posted about this issue before; and although professional philosophy talks aren't paradigmatic examples of aesthetic performances, I have beeped people during some of my talks. One striking result: People spend lots of time thinking about things other than the explicit content of the performance -- for example, thinking instead about needing to go to the bathroom, or a sports bet they just won, or the weird color of an advertising flyer. And I'd bet Nutcracker audiences are similarly scatterbrained. (See also Schooler, Reichle, and Halpern 2004; Schubert, Vincs, and Stevens 2013.)

(image source: *)

But I also get the sense that if I pause, I can gather the audience up. A brief pause is commanding -- in music (e.g. Roxanne), in film -- but especially in a live performance like a talk. Partly, I suspect this is due to contrast with previous noise levels, but also it seems to raise curiosity about what's next -- a topic change, a point of emphasis, some unplanned piece of human behavior. (How interesting it is when the speaker drops his cup! -- much more interesting, usually, in a sad and wonderfully primate way, than the talk itself.)

I picture people's conscious attention coming in waves. We launch out together reasonably well focused, but soon people start drifting their various directions. The speaker pauses or does something else that draws attention, and that gathers everyone briefly back together. Soon the audience is off drifting again.

We could study this with beepers. We could see if I'm right about pauses. We could see what parts of performance tend to draw people back from their wanderings and what parts of performance tend to escape conscious attention. We could see how immersive a performance is (in one sense of "immersive") by seeing how frequently people report being off topic vs. on a tangentially related topic vs. being focused on the immediate content of the performance. We could vastly improve our understanding of the audience experience. New avenues for criticism could open up. Knowing how to capture and manipulate the waves could help writers and performers create a performance more in line with their aesthetic goals. Maybe artists could learn to want waves and gatherings of a certain sort, adding a new dimension to their aesthetic goals.

As far as I can tell, no one has ever done a systematic experience sampling study during aesthetic experience that explores these issues. It's time.


Callan S. said...

What strikes me is if everyones mind is wandering, why is there even an audience to begin with?

Also is there a measure of how many points removed the wandering is? If the talk is about advertising and someone is wondering about the weird colour of an advert, it's kind of only once removed. But if they think about the weird ad, and then start thinking about what they'll have for dinner (by being reminded about junk food advertising), that's kinda twice removed.

Once removed seems good, to me.

Marek McGann said...

That there's a rhythm to attention and conscious experience (in fact, there's probably several) was brought home to me watching very clearly watching the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The harsh blare of vuvuzelas was constant, but after the first couple of matches my awareness of it (and anyone I spoke to) wasn't - it waxed and waned over periods of fives or tens of minutes.

There's probably some interesting work do be done on the periods of such rhythms.

Anibal Monasterio Astobiza said...

I really like this approach.

As a complementary issue i would like to know if mind wandering as a self-generated mental activity (in waves) differs in kind depending on its format.

I guess we can mind wandering in verbal mode, or visual mode...and if sustained attention to the ongoing performance (watching a play, reading a story...)is disrupted as a consequence of mind wandering in any of these formats how likely is to be recaptured the audience if for example the performance is noncongruent with the format of mind wandering: watching a play but the audience is mind-wandering in verbal mode.

Why a given performance evoke mind wandering in a specific format etc.

Scott Bakker said...

This would be difficult, I think, simply because the degree to which attention lapses back to the default network would seem to depend on so very many factors.

I wonder though, if something different but parallel couldn't be done by examining data mining info culled from blogs, the idea being that clicking from a blog in times obviously too short to read the content could be taken as an indicator of mind-wandering. You could get some big numbers this way. The question would be one of how to properly torture them.

Another upshot is the availability of this information (I think). At the very least it might suggest further research avenues...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Callan: I agree one degree removed is good in a way. It would be interesting to look for patterns in this -- though also a challenge.

Marek: I agree -- sports-watching would be another very interesting case to explore

Anibal: Yes, those seem like some natural directions to take it!

Scott: I agree that it's going to be very messy and multi-factorial. Data mining click-aways seems like a rich resource to explore too. I bet there are some serious people out there working on that in private industry and probably also some in academia. I'd wager that different methodologies, though, yield pretty different results.

Callan S. said...

Scott: Isn't that chanel surfing?

Anonymous said...

On the sports angle, it would be interesting to see how much different are the levels of attention between those who bet on the game and those who don't. My guess is those with money on the contest would tend to be more rapt and less susceptible to mind drift.

Callan S. said...

Anon, I'm a bit off topic but that's rather interesting in regard to the last post that used an example of being in a plane, pondering the chances of a plane crash, yet not being able to do anything about it so it wasn't heart palpitating stuff.

But by the same token someone watching a game with a bet on the action might very well be more excited - but they can't do anything either, can they? Yeah, off topic of me - my mind drifted *boom, ting!*