Directed Attention Fatigue and Restoration

Attention Number 1—Directed Attention

If you do too much concentrating, Directed Attention can fatigue.  It can get tired, run down, and work less and less well.  In extreme cases, it can even become unavailable. But what is Directed Attention like when it’s not fatigued? What is it, and how does it act when it’s working well?
You are probably already quite familiar with Directed Attention from everyday life. There are many different names for it, including concentration, effortful attention, and focus.
You use this kind of attention when you have to stick with a task despite boredom or distractions. You even use it when you are involved in activities we really enjoy. Because most activities involve some boring or difficult parts.
We have to struggle master this ability to concentrate as kids.  William James linked it to willpower, and it is also part of what we refer to as self-discipline.  It allows us to do things that don’t come naturally—like math and writing and resisting temptations.
You need it to ignore distractions, make a plan and follow through, and not just wander off.  Without it, you might not starve to death or get run over by trucks, (another kind of attention, involuntary attention or fascination, handles such basics) but you'd have a much harder time making it through school, doing most jobs, or getting along well with other people.
The central thing to remember about Directed Attention is that it is inhibitory attention. It does not work by turning up the volume on a particular thought.  Instead, it makes other current thoughts quiet down.  It inhibits them.
What, me—inhibited?
When we talk about inhibition here, we do not mean the uptight, unable to relax and party kind of inhibition. We are talking about inhibitory attention—which is another name for Directed Attention. 
It uses Global inhibition, a brain-wide modulating system which can damp down activity in parts of the brain.  This is a critically important function—without this kind of system-wide inhibitory capacity, the brain would go into runaway, and we would have totally scrambled thoughts and seizures.
The Directed Attention system uses a part of this global inhibitory capacity.  This behind-the-scenes inhibition quiets things down overall, so local activity can keep going and become stronger.
And that is how this odd and interesting system works.  In order to concentrate, you don’t just turn up the mental volume of a particular idea.
You also have to turn everything else DOWN, using inhibitory system circuits in your frontal cortex and midbrain.
This way you cool down the overall go-go activity of your thoughts and perceptions. It damps down certain areas of thought so that others might shine.  It lets the small fragile idea be heard and nurtured. It’s like calming a rowdy classroom, so the little quiet kid in the corner can be heard.
When you inhibit all the other activity, you make room for the particular, sometimes fragile, train of thought you need at the time.  This single active train of thought can then gain energy and grow. 
Rather than being stuck with what’s loudest, you can follow less flashy ideas, and even allow fragile new creative thoughts to take hold.
This system quiets competing activity long enough for you to form new associations, lay down new memories, compare, sort things out, and act.  It permits focus and flexibility in many areas of thought.
Inhibition is always at work in your brain, rising and falling in a complex dance over different areas, so fast and quiet you never notice it—until something goes wrong.
However, quieting other activity to make room for a particular train of thought takes inhibitory chemicals, and, like other brain chemicals, these can become depleted.  You can use up your inhibition juice.  So you have to do things that preserve and also replenish this inhibitory substance.  We will discuss this in detail later.
Skillful use of this kind of mental inhibitory system is a huge accomplishment we all struggle to acquire in childhood. This hard-won skill is the basis for many important human successes.
Life cycle and inhibitory attention
It is also a relatively recent addition to human consciousness, and is still quite fragile!
Learning to concentrate, to use our voluntary directed attention system, is one of the major mental tasks of childhood.  As children we repeatedly practice focusing on things that may be boring, we learn to stay with a project despite exciting things happening all around us, and we even learn to do, ugh, math problems. (And some of us even grow to really love the challenge of doing math problems!)
We learn to delay our responses to attractive temptations that appear, and get back to business.  Good directed attention skills let us study and compare and organize and plan.  When the Directed Attention system is working well, we feel alert, focused, on top of things, and often don’t even notice anything about attention at all. 
But when it is not working, we feel irritable and unfocused and unpleasant and lost.  In fact, this is a safety feature.  The ability to concentrate is important to our survival, and we are built to feel bad when our attention is not working.  Most of the time, however, it is like a heartbeat-- such a basic process that we usually do not notice it. We are too busy interacting flexibly with people, the environment, and our own ideas. 
Although you are most likely to notice directed attention when it starts to falter, even then, it can be hard to tell exactly what the problem is.  This system is very deep and widespread and touches so many mental functions. Sometimes you clearly can’t concentrate.  But other times you might get locked into an activity and can’t stop doing something.  Sometimes you might  feel irritable, or confused, have trouble making decisions.  Sometimes you might just have a general feeling of wrongness.
One caution here—Directed Attention Fatigue in itself is NOT an illness, ailment, or syndrome.
It IS just plain fatigue of a particular system. 
But if you repeatedly extremely fatigue the system, use your inhibitory system too long and too hard— even in the service of something “good”, like schoolwork or a demanding job without enough sleep, or entertaining activities that are fun but require quite a bit of focus, like playing video games too long and hard, or watching too much TV, the system may become permanently changed, making you more susceptible to mental fatigue in the future.
All this concentration, discipline, and focus—is this gonna hurt?
If all this sounds like work, well, it is.  You may not notice it, but you are working when you concentrate. And when you have to concentrate, especially with distractions around, it can start to hurt.  Even literally, if you frown or clench your muscles, trying to increase your concentration. 
Effortful attention—um—takes effort.  We are not born with Directed Attention.  It grows, starting at a tender age, after we have gotten a grip on things like chewing and walking.  We are learning to use it earlier, but by kindergarten, (see Posner section) our Directed Attention really has to work.  And we mostly do get better at it.  We work hard in elementary school to develop the skill of focusing our attention.
It takes many years for us to get really good at concentration—even in adolescence we are still struggling.  A lack of early practice of this skill can hamper our later lives as severely as if we did not master arithmetic.  More so, because the ability to ignore distractions and focus on our goals—on what we ourselves think is important, not just what we hear from outside—this is central to much of what we care about most.  When we look at the difficulty and suffering of the rare few who have severe genetic attention difficulties, who have to fiercely struggle to concentrate, we see how essential it is to have good concentration skills.
Having choices: To respond or not to respond
If you stop and think about it, one of the most important aspects of Directed Attention is that it gives us a chance to opt-out, even for a moment, of being merely stimulus-response organisms. 
In a way, this is one of our most important human abilities.  We do not just blindly respond.  We are not just running on instincts.  We are not programmed from birth to think or act in a particular way to a particular event.
With Directed Attention we can go offline, stop an automatic reaction, even one we have previously learned, and think things over.  It gives us a chance to consider, decide, scheme, plot, dream, plan, and reconsider.
By allowing us to cool down brain activity, inhibitory attention gives us a small space where we do not have to respond automatically.  And this may be the beginning of freedom.
Most creatures, and indeed most humans, most of the time, just react to circumstances.  And that is often a good idea.  It’s fast, clear, efficient.  Something happens, we respond.  In a natural environment, with natural opportunities and dangers, we have built-in responses that will carry us through most situations. 
But that is not always the best option.  It can be a bad idea to run and hide when you hear a loud noise. It can be a bad idea to eat whenever you see food. It can be a bad idea to blindly follow your passion when wood needs chopping, water needs carrying, and dinner needs to be prepared.
In the modern world, there are also dangers to which we have no built-in response—toxic chemicals, sunburn, odd social situations.  We need to inhibit our automatic reactions--or non-reactions to such situations. 
There are also many things that we should not always respond to even though they are automatically attractive: gluttony, lust, and sloth are a few.  Directed attention gives us that extra capacity to resist. 
Many of us, in fact, are quite familiar with one danger zone—we know that we will have more trouble resisting when we are tired.
Or we may be deceived—by people, advertisements, even camouflaged plants or animals, and in this case it is essential to be able to stop and think.  An attractive initiation may actually be a scam, and we need to stop long enough to check it out and decide how to respond.
People also have multiple interests and needs which do not always go together.  We may have a multitude of opportunities.  Directed Attention gives us the space to pick and choose.  It allows us to delay some things and decide the order in which we will do things.  It lets us modify our responses, or correct them in mid-action.  It even gives us the sometimes life-saving option of not responding at all.
You can do most of this without Directed Attention, but it is much harder.  That requires establishing strong habits, rules and cognitive frameworks beforehand, in order not to be swept away by events.  The problem with this, of course, is that the unexpected always happens.  In order to act responsibly, you need to use Directed Attention to make decisions. And things keep changing, so some of the old habits may not make sense anymore.  While habits and rules are very useful, and help you preserve your attention juice, Directed Attention gives you the extra edge when something unexpected happens, or when you just need to think things through.
Midgley, M., The Step to Man

Kaplan, S. (1978). Attention and fascination: The search for cognitive clarity. In S. Kaplan & R. Kaplan (Eds.), Humanscape: Environments for people. Belmont, CA: Duxbury. (Republished by Ann Arbor, MI: Ulrich's, 1982.)

Kandel Eric R, (1991) Principles of Neural Science, 3rd ed, New York, Elsevier

Kuo, F. E. Kuo and A. Faber Taylor, (2004) A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence From a National Study, Am J Public Health, September 1, 2004; 94(9): 1580 - 1586

Lezak, M.D., Assessing executive functions, International Journal of Psychology, 17 (1982) 281-297

Michael 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


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