Directed Attention Fatigue and Restoration

What is Directed Attention Fatigue?
And Do I Have It?

Directed Attention uses the power of our global inhibititory 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.


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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© 2006-2008 S. Beadle
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