What Causes Directed Attention Fatigue?
Directed Attention is so basic to thinking and functioning that
you may not notice you are using it. But it is very easy to wear out
attention, and since Directed Attention Fatigue
problem, it is helpful to know what causes it, so you can plan when
to stop, or schedule specific restorative activities.
A. Activities that can lead to DAF
• Concentrating too hard or too long on tasks like taxes or homework, or
trying to understand unfamiliar concepts.
• Fending off distractions or preserving signal in the face of
noise, such as studying with the TV on, or trying to follow a conversation
• Running multiple models, such as deception, secrets, trying to be polite,
or talking while worried about something else can drain attention
fast. You also run multiple models when you compare different plans or ideas,
or do creative work.
B. Environments and situations that can lead to DAF
• Staying safe in dangerous environments is particularly fatiguing--trying
to live and work while avoiding danger just adds to the drain.
• Incompatible environments that do not suit what you are trying to do
are fatiguing. A library is incompatible with practicing opera singing, a
busy street is incompatible with a quiet private conversation. Confusing
environments are also draining.
• Being a caregiver for someone ill is notoriously fatiguing. So are social
situations if you are shy, dealing with stereotypes, trying to impress
someone, or if there are culture differences.
• Work-related situations that are dangerous or demand extra vigilance
are obviously draining. So are working long hours, doing presentations,
attending conventions, being in graduate school, or working in a company that
is in trouble or being downsized.
One-time fatiguing events include a death in the family, taking tests,
or dealing with emergencies. In some emergencies, Fascination takes
over, but that’s another story for later.
C. Habits that can lead to DAF
• Cultures may promote a hyperactive work ethic, consider healthful sleep
and restorative activities slothful, or encourage draining secrets
and elaborate social structures.
• Cognitive habits such as trying to do or remember too much, not taking
breaks, multitasking, and making excessive demands on yourself
or the world can drain attention.
D. Physiological circumstances that can lead to DAF
• Lack of sleep is the biggest cause of Directed Attention Fatigue, and
the best thing you can do is to get more sleep.
• Illness or injury can directly interrupt the brain circuits which drive
attention. Being sick brings many fatiguing worries and concerns,
and dealing with pain is a huge attention drain.
• Directed Attention varies with age and individual differences.
grows rapidly before age 5, but can take two decades to really
mature and function well. Individuals differ greatly in how much Directed Attention
is available and when it comes online.
Some of us never have much Directed Attention available,
and must rely on built-in fascination and avoid fatiguing activities. Others
good attention, but more slowly, and may not be able to focus
off distractions until late grade school. Then, just when you
have gotten good at it, attention begins to decline with advancing age.
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Humanscape: Environments for people. Belmont, CA: Duxbury. (Republished
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Sullivan WC. Aggression and violence in the inner city: impacts of
environment via mental fatigue. Environment Behav. 2001;33:543–571.
I. Posner and Jin Fan, Attention as an Organ System, Sackler Institute,
Weill Medical College of Cornell University. This paper was presented
at the De Lange Conference, March 2001