Directed Attention Fatigue and Restoration

What is Directed Attention Fatigue?
You are most likely to realize you have Directed Attention Fatigue when a specific set of experiences occur together. That's when you temporarily feel unusually distractible, impatient, forgetful, and cranky, and there is no physical cause.

This happens when a specifiic part of your global mental inhibitory systems gets worn out from over-use.

Note that Directed Attention Fatigue (or DAF) is temporary. And it is fatigue-- caused by overuse of a specific system.

It is not an illness, a personality trait or anything else, it is fatigue.

What causes it?
There are many causes, but generally DAF is caused by trying to concentrate too long or too much in the midst of external or internal distraction.

If you want to make yourself immediately susceptible, just slack off on sleep. Sleep helps replenish your ability to concentrate.

Directed attention is such a basic, deep process that when it goes wrong, the effects can spread throughout your mental functioning, sometimes with dangerous consequences. And if you keep getting DAF repeatedly, it may be harder and harder to recover from it.

What are some signs of DAF?
Directed Attention Fatigue can show up in an number of areas:

Input --You may feel more distractible, have trouble listening, hear things wrong, or miss things.

Thinking-- You may have trouble focusing, leave things half done, forget things, lose things, find it hard to think, get confused more easily, think less creatively. Or you may get stuck on certain ideas, thoughts.

Acting -- You may act on impulse, take chances, act impatient, make more mistakes, blurt things out, jump to conclusions, overindulge, impulse buy, have trouble knowing when to stop.

Emotions --You may feel more irritable, bothered by small stuff, find it harder to handle noise and commotion, feel more moody, or emotionally unstable.

Difficulties in these basic areas can spread into the more complex social and planning arena.

Planning-- You may find it harder to make plans and decisions, take steps in the right order to follow plans, do more than just react to events. You may find it hard to get moving, or stick with dull chores. You may lose your perspective.

People-- You may be more likely to take offense, laugh or cry or talk too much, or at the wrong times. You may miss cues, act hopeless, or silly. You may be less likely to help out, be considerate, give other people a break.

The items toward the end of this list rely on more complex mental activities, break down more easily, and may take longer to recover. But they CAN recover, given some help.

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 is nothing to fool around with. It can lead to accidents, bad decisions, impuslive actions, and personal misery. To save your brain and prevent future difficulties, deal with DAF as soon as you can.

Cimprich B. (1993) Development of an intervention to restore attention in cancer patients. Cancer Nurs. 1993 Apr;16(2):83-92.

Kaplan, S. and R. Kaplan (1982). Cognition and Environment. New York: Praeger. Republished 1989 by Ulrich’s, Ann Arbor, MI.

Also see Bernadine Cimprich, Frances Kuo, and the SESAME-ANT group at the University of Michigan.


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© 2006-2008 S. Beadle
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