Directed Attention Fatigue and Restoration

Even Good Things Can Wear Out Attention

A. Things that are fun can drain attention
Some of our favorite activities and environments that are fun or just feel good (whether they are good for us in other ways or not) can also use up attention.

It is really remarkable how well humans are at self-regulation overall, how our instincts and preferences can guide us. But as we know, they are not infallible.

We all know that there can be a disjunct between what’s good for us and what feels good.

Often this is because the environment we’ve adapted to over multitudes of generations has changed. Rare food supplies have become abundant. Heavy exercise in the course of daily routines has become rare. The concentration of what we encounter has changed. For example, concentrated sugar used to be very hard to get—honey was almost the only raw source. Now we are awash in syrup—much of it high-fructose, which can vex our metabolism.

Another, more dire, example is that in nature, it is very unusual to come into contact with concentrated sources of nuclear radiation. Which may be why humans do not come with built-in nuclear detectors. We don’t hurt or sweat or get itchy when we are exposed to this kind of radiation, even though it is very dangerous to us.

A similar thing happens with cognitive instincts. We like things that are bright, flashy, have a good story line, are mysterious but still make sense, and are survival related. But, even though these things are fascinating, and do not drain attention for that reason, they also have aspects, especially in the modern forms we contact most frequently, that do indeed require concentration.

1. Television
Television viewing is probably the most widespread and frequent of these. We tend to watch TV when we are tired and want to just kick back, as well as when we watch favorite shows.

Unfortunately (and this is something you will not hear on TV!) television is notorious for draining attention. This is partly due to the chopped up nature of commercial television—where the aim is to fascinate you enough to keep you watching through the commercials, which are the bottom line of TV. So just when you really get interested, you get interrupted, and have to try to hold a train of thought through a commercial.

Another aspect of television that makes it unusually hard on directed attention is that the screen size often takes up just a small angle of vision—this means you have to work hard just to keep your eyes glued to the screen. Larger TV screens will help this, but increased commercials may erase any improvement.

Third, many parts of television increasingly use the “MTV effect”—fast cuts, fancy transitions, odd camera angles, to hook in really basic human neurophysiology to keep us engaged. (Even frogs pay attention to movement!)

But they can only go so far in keeping us tuned to boring content, and may in themselves be fatiguing if done in the wrong way or at the wrong speed.

2 Video Games
While there is no current evidence on this, because of their similarity to TV, video games may also be draining for similar reasons. They are more user-controlled and more interactive than TV, but some of them require intense amounts of concentration.

3. Hobbies
Even some hobbies can require extended concentration, and this can trip us up. If you find yourself significantly more distracted and irritable after doing your favorite hobby, see if there are hidden concentration demands that you might be able to reduce.

4. Shopping
Shopping is a favorite entertainment for many people. Malls, sporting goods stores and boutiques are very popular. They certainly draw upon old old human interests—hunting and gathering, making choices, and seeing new things.

However, many of us have suffered from the “Mall Syndrome,” coming home after even a short bout of shopping exhausted, irritable, and our of focus. In part this is because of simple too-muchness. We were built to discriminate between several bushes full of berries, not hundreds of forests full of them. Making a choice between two or three things is fun and engaging. Making a choice between three dozen almost identical things is disconcerting and depleting. (reference)

5. Social activities
As noted elsewhere, some social activities, especially for some people, can be very draining. This is also true for all of us at times. An attractive party can become a horrendous chore if we are low on sleep or not feeling well.

B. Things that actually are good for us may drain attention
Even though they have other benefits, certain activities can draw heavily on directed attention.

These include:
Helping others too much
Going to church if the sermons are boring but you have to look awake
A demanding job
Staying up late to accomplish an important task

Because of this, when we engage in these activities, it’s a good idea to schedule break time, and plan for restoration time.

C. Some things that do not drain attention can also be bad for us!
Worthy of note—many attention-related things that are bad for you do NOT drain attention—because they are naturally riveting.

Blood sports are a good example. You may lose a limb bullfighting or alligator wrestling, but you will probably not be very distracted. So just because you feel focused and energized does not in itself mean something is good for you overall!


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


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© 2006-2008 S. Beadle
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