Directed Attention Fatigue and Restoration

6. Signs of Attention Fatigue on Social Interactions

The cumulative effects of Attention Fatigue in the previously discussed areas can have a tremendous impact on your social functioning.

Interacting with people may become more difficult:
•You may feel unwilling to help
•You may be more likely to take offense, feel hurt, or see conflicts more readily
•You may find it harder to get over a slight or conflict
•You may focus on odd things, or get stuck in interactions
•You may be more susceptible to machinations of others
•You may feel moody and want to withdraw, or strike out
•You may find it hard to be considerate
•You may have poor judgment
•Your timing may be off
•You may be more easily swayed and convinced
•You may find it harder to detect lies or deceptions
•You may laugh or cry or talk too much
•You may blurt things out or emote at the wrong time
•You may miss cues
•Your are more easily led into temptation
•You may act hopeless, or feel punchy or silly
•You may act insensitive or be less likely to give other people a break

And the effect can become circular, since most of this will not elicit warm and cheerful social feedback.

Social interaction is probably one of the most attention-draining activities we do. Interacting with people typically demands running multiple models while inhibiting and trying to think ahead, even if it is just what to say next.

The fact that when fatigued, you become less helpful, and more likely to withdraw may even be a good thing, in that it removes you from trouble, makes you less likely to cause trouble for others, and less susceptible to the machinations of others when you are less able to handle them, and gives you a chance to recover.

We have gone through 6 areas of mental functioning. The items toward the end of this list rely on more complex mental activities, and break down more easily, and may take longer to recover. But they CAN recover, given some help. That is the area of Restorative Activities, which we will talk about a lot.

Alone, the occasional appearance of most of these would be unremarkable, but several together may indicate that Directed Attention is becoming fatigued.

The Woes of Humanity
In fact, looking over the whole list of effects of Directed Attention Fatigue is quite amazing--it covers such a range of the woes of humanity.

Whatever wants to go wrong is more likely to do so when you are fatigued. Little kids get cranky at night—and so do adults. But adults also show different signs, at different times of the day, because of the extra demands on our attention systems.

And if you are in an angry frame of mind already, or a depressed one, or in a position of responsibility—driving a car, dealing with a group of children, doing air traffic control, the effects of attention fatigue can become a very serious issue.

But remember, while this may look like a list of symptoms, this is not a disease!

DAF is not something broken in our brains! it is not abnormal! It is a normal biological process, just like muscle fatigue—a natural consequence of certain kinds of activity—of pushing a normal process too far. And no doubt it is something that every adult has experienced—sometimes frequently.

Different individuals often have their own characteristic reactions to DAF. Some people may become irritable at the onset of DAF. Others may act giddy, or feel depressed. Some may withdraw, others may become restless.

When you learn your own early warning signals, you can make your own early interventions. You can take steps to do something, even if it’s only to get to a safe place or put off important decisions. Even better, you can takes steps to reduce your attention load and begin restorative activities.

William James, The Principles of Psychology, 1890

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

Kaplan, Rachel, and Stephen Kaplan, The experience of nature, a psychological perspective, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989

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


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