Directed attention fatigue

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Directed attention fatigue

Template:Search infobox Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]

Associate Editor-In-Chief: Cafer Zorkun, M.D., Ph.D. [2]

Directed attention fatigue (DAF) is a neurological symptom which occurs when the inhibitory attention system, that part of the brain which allows us to concentrate in the face of distractions, becomes fatigued.

Directed or effortful attention, also known as executive attention, is the kind we use to concentrate on something difficult, to stay with a task, to ignore distractions, or return to a task when we get distracted. When it is working well, it lets us imagine, then focus enough to build that imagination into structures and plans, and stay with them long enough to mentally test them out.

Signs of directed attention fatigue include temporarily feeling unusually distractible, impatient, forgetful, or cranky when there is no associated illness. In more severe forms, it can lead to bad judgment, apathy, or accidents, and can contribute to increased stress levels. DAF is caused by concentrating too much in the midst of external or internal distractions. Inhibitory attention chemicals are replenished during sleep, so lack of sleep can increase the likelihood of directed attention fatigue.

Directed Attention uses the power of our global inhibitory system to handle distractions, let us concentrate, focus, and stay on task.

But we can use this inhibitory attention system so hard that we run out of attention juice. Directed Attention can get tired, run down, and work less and less well. In extreme cases, it can even become unavailable.

How can you tell if this has happened to you or someone you know? How can you tell when you have Directed Attention Fatigue? Dr. Stephen Kaplan and colleagues have identified signs of Directed Attention Fatigue in six major areas of mental activity:

1. Input

You misperceive things, or miss cues.

2. Thinking

You can’t focus, get confused, forget things.

3. Behavior

You act impulsively, take chances, make more mistakes.

4. Executive functioning

You find it harder to decide and plan.

This can spread into other arenas:

5. Emotions

Your feelings become more unstable, and often more unpleasant.

6. Social interactions

You may feel more irritable and less helpful.

The more of these that happen at the same time, especially things from different categories, the more likely it is that you have Directed Attention Fatigue. This may sound like what most people experience when it’s late and they’re tired, and that’s no accident. Attention fatigue is common late at night, since you use most of your attention juice in the course of a normal day.

But Directed Attention Fatigue can also happen at any time of day, after an intense meeting, or after studying too hard, or if you live in a noisy or dangerous neighborhood. It can happen when you don’t feel physically tired. In fact, you may feel weirdly alert and edgy. And it can become chronic if you repeatedly burn through your attention, or burn the candle at both ends.

As we will say more than once, the results can range from trivial mistakes to more serious consequences. Later on, we will explore these six areas of Directed Attention Fatigue more closely.

Things to remember

•DAF is fatigue, not a disease!

•DAF is a normal biological process, just like muscle aches, the kind of thing we all experience.

•Different individuals often have their own signs of DAF. So learn your own early warning signs, and take steps to reduce your Attention Fatigue.

Attention Fatigue can make it much harder for you to control or inhibit verbal or physical behavior:

•Your output control may be impaired so you have decreased ability to stop, delay or control behavior: •You may have a lowered threshold between thinking and acting •You may take unusual risks •You may act impatient •You may make more mistakes •You may blurt things out or say things you wish you hadn’t •You may overdo, or act at the wrong time •You may eat or drink too much •You may impulsively spend or drink or take chances •You find it hard to initiate or stay with dull but necessary tasks •You may have trouble knowing when to stop

Our ability to plan and carry out plans

Our ability to plan and carry out plans, so central to our existence, is relatively fragile and depends on good attention. Attention Fatigue can decrease this executive functioning.

With Attention Fatigue, executive functions such as planning and decision-making are impaired:

•You may find it harder to make plans and decisions •You may find it harder to follow a sequence of steps toward your goal •You may make crazy or ineffective plans, or ones you could never follow •You may have bad timing •You may show disinterest, apathy, carelessness, lack of drive, reduced fluency, lack of self-correcting ability (Lezak, 1982) •Your “older” inclinations may become default values •You may show lack of drive, and find it hard to get moving •You may find it hard to stay with dull chores •You may forget why you’re here •You may become more careless and not bother to plan •You may lose your perspective •You may lack direction •You may have trouble doing more than just reacting to events •You may act more like stimulus-response based organisms, responding automatically, slavishly, to stimuli, than a creature with a big brain with the ability to transcend the environment •You may lose the big picture (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989)

Signs of Directed Attention Fatigue in Emotions

With one exception, Attention Fatigue does not directly affect your emotions, since emotions apparently run on different circuitry. The exception is that everything often seems more unpleasant when you are fatigued. This is usually the case when an essential system is not functioning up to par-- but vague feelings of unease can make it hard to tell which system is not working.

What fatigue does do to emotions is interfere with the system that helps you modulate or ignore emotions, or think differently. When this ability to regulate emotional input is impaired, you are at the whim of every passing feeling.

With Attention Fatigue, your affect, emotions, or feelings may become more unstable and negative:

•You may feel more irritable or moody •You may feel more impatient, stuck, and generally uncomfortable •You find it harder to tolerate trivia or delays •You may feel unusual suspicion or fears •You may find it harder to handle noise and commotion •Your emotions may jump around, feel more extreme, or seem stuck •It may become harder to trust your emotions, just when you are more influenced by them


What might help?

1. Reduce external distractions. Noise, danger, time pressure, interruptions can all be distractions. Reduce these and make an environment appropriate for your specific tasks whenever you can.

2. Clear your mind of internal distractions as much as possible. Unfinished business, worry, anger are some internal distractions.

3. You may not even feel your concentration slipping until it has gone way too far. It helps if you can learn how long you can go without a break. And learn to recognize when you are starting to lose concentration. Then actually take a break, or do something else that requires less focus for a while.

4. Get enough sleep. What is enough? One rule of thumb is to get enough so that you wouldn't fall asleep the next afternoon in a warm dark room during a boring lecture.


Directed Attention Fatigue and Restoration

Additional Resources

  • James,William, The Principles of Psychology, 1890
  • Kaplan, Rachel, and Stephen Kaplan, The experience of nature, a psychological perspective, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989
  • Kuo FE, Sullivan WC. Aggression and violence in the inner city: impacts of environment via mental fatigue. Environment Behav. 2001; 33: 543–571.
  • Lezak, M.D., Assessing executive functions, International Journal of Psychology, 17 (1982) 281-297

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