Directed Attention Fatigue and Restoration

Introduction to Directed Attention Fatigue and Restoration

Directed Attention Fatigue is widely experienced but rarely recognized.

When it happens to us, we see it as a whole range of things: feeling cranky, tired, distracted, irritable, antisocial, or accident-prone.

Sometimes this gets better after we take a break, or get a good night's sleep. But other times, we need to do a lot more.

The effects can be minor, so we feel down or distractible, or they can be major, so we can't do our work, make mistakes, get in trouble, or cause accidents, even serious accidents, if we happen to be flying a plane or doing surgery.

And as our modern world places increasing attention demands upon us, this relatively fragile system is under increased pressure. Noise, multitasking, the need to frequently inhibit responses, social complexity, rapid rates of change, they all take their toll.

Most of us have not realized that this range of effects might arise from various aspects of attention.

That discovery was the work of environmental psychologists Dr. Rachel Kaplan and Dr. Stephen Kaplan of The University of Michigan. They and their students and colleagues in the SESAME group have been studying this phenomenon for more than two decades, and have built an impressive body of research and literature. Dr. Bernadine Cimprich, Professor of Nursing at The University of Michigan, has been working to understand the attention demands and difficulties of people with illnesses. She has also done pioneering work on Attention Restoration. Dr. Frances Kuo and Dr. William Sullivan, psychologists at The University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, are studying the effects of inner city life on attention, and the relationship between Directed Attention Fatigue and ADHD, and restorative outdoor activities that can help.

And these researchers are not alone—throughout the book, many others who have made important contributions will be mentioned.

Additionally, in the sections on attention restoration, the work of therapist Bill O'Hanlon is frequently referenced and applied.

As the growing body of research expands and continues, it is time for more people in a range of fields and walks of life to hear about this and benefit, and that is the purpose of this book.

We will talk about what Directed Attention Fatigue is, what causes it, how attention works, and how things can go wrong.

But we won’t stop with the bad news!

In addition to reporting the consequences of Directed Attention Fatigue, we will look at Attention Restoration—how to give our systems a chance to restore themselves. And we will look at prevention—how in the future we can reduce the amount of Directed Attention Fatigue we experience and the hit it takes on our personal and public lives. We will draw upon the knowledge of other scientists, clinicians and wise people to learn what we can do to understand and to help ourselves and each other.

One last word before we begin--the power of a helpful friend and colleague in focusing the attention under trying circumstances is enormous and invaluable. Dr. Leeann Fu has been that person for me during this long journey.



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)

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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©2006 S. Beadle