Boredom, Fatigue, and Attention Deficits

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Boredom, fatigue, and attention deficits are notifications of needs. They are common expressions of your body trying to get your attention in similar ways.

Current Scientific Literature on Boredom

The currently favored definition of boredom is a state of reduced arousal and dissatisfaction that you attribute to a situation that isn’t stimulating you. 1 Boredom states are associated with:

  • Over- and under-stimulation.
  • Thoughts that have nothing to do with your current activity.
  • An overestimation of how much time has passed.
  • A reduced perception of how much agency you have in your current situation.[1]

There are a few theories as to how boredom functions:

The default mode network, highlighted by an fMRI scan.
  • Mismatch hypothesis: boredom is a mismatch between how much attention your current task needs and how much attention you currently have to give. Basically, you’re under- or over-stimulated by what you’re currently doing.
  • Attention failure hypothesis: Boredom is a type of attention failure that you attribute to your current task for several possible reasons.[1]

With boredom, the most correlated region of the brain found during fMRI studies has been the DMN (the default mode network), shown here. This area is also related to mind wandering. [2]

Current Scientific Literature on Attention & Fatigue

Attention and fatigue are broad topic that are difficult to pin down, as there are many types of fatigue and many types of reduction in attention. The attention reduction and fatigue most likely to be related to the types discussed in this chapter are the types categorized as time-on-task effects. There are, however, other time-on-task effects, including negative effects on decision making, will power, emotion, impulse control, diet, sports, and driving. There are few theories for how time-on-task effects function.

  • The Strength Model of Self-Control posits that your ability to control yourself is a limited resource that gets used up. Basically, you run out of self-control fuel.
  • The Process Model of Self-Control posits that these effects are the result of motivation and attention switching. For example, your attention and motivation switching from what you are required to do, such as work, to self-care tasks like eating, resting, or being social.
  • The Cost-Benefit Model of Self-Control posits that the brain becomes less efficient at weighing the costs and benefits of tasks. This results in shifts in attention from tasks that are not enjoyable to tasks that are enjoyable. [3]

In a test exploring time-on-task effects, researchers found that increased effects reduced the amplitudes of low-frequency fluctuation in the DMN.[4]

Current Scientific Literature on Attention Deficits





Symptoms & Causes

One of the first notifications of a strong internal need tends to be a slight loss of attention to what you are attempting to attend to. You may dismiss this sensation as boredom, slight fatigue, mind wandering, daydreaming, or an attention deficit of some sort. This is caused by a node in your network attempting to redirect your attention to its bodily need by inhibiting your ability to focus outward. The attention failure hypothesis of boredom is more supported by these observations than the mismatch hypothesis.

What’s Going On

A slight pull on your attention means that you have a bodily need trying to get your attention. An odd quality to your attention tends to mean multiple nodes are disagreeing with each other and all trying to get your attention. That is a conflict. Either way, anything that happens to your attention tells you that something is trying to get your attention internally.

What to Do About It

As soon as you notice the pull on your attention, start iterating through all possible needs. When you have discovered and alleviated all current major needs, your attention will be fully restored and you will be able to focus. Perform this fast enough and it can be seamless in daily life.

Lesson: Fixing Your Attention

To start, you need to be in a state without any pressing needs.

  1. Ask your body if you need anything. To do that, intend to, in general, attend to and take care of your body’s needs. Query that general intention. Be physically ready to do that.
    • If you get a negative response, you’re probably satiated. You can go to step 2.
    • If you get a positive response, iterate through all possible needs, categorically, in your needs list. If you find any needs, take care of them immediately, and then start this step over.
  2. Watch a lecture of some sort that you are interested in. This is so that you are performing a task that involves active attention, but you’re not physically doing anything that could distract you from the state of your attention.
  3. Watch your attention. When you feel your attention start to pull away at all: boredom, fatigue, mind wandering, daydreaming, or anything of that sort, stop immediately.
  4. Query your needs as you did in step 1.
  5. After you have discovered and satiated that need, do it again, to make sure there isn’t another need. Keep repeating that as many times as necessary until you find that you have no more apparent needs.
  6. Notice your attention. Unless you hit a rebuild state some time in this process, your attention should be back to normal and you should be able to get back to the lecture with full attention.

Cheating a Little

Attention is restored when you start working towards fulfilling the final current major need, not simply when the final need is fulfilled. This can be used to restore attention to your current task more quickly by including your current task in your intention to alleviate that final need. If you have prepared to quickly take care of that need at any moment, and you actually make it to the fulfillment of that need within a reasonable amount of time, your current task can keep your full attention almost seamlessly.

As an example, back when I was getting my degree, I would bring food to my classes in case I needed to eat. I was once sitting in class, paying attention to my Anatomy & Physiology professor’s lecture, when I felt a slight pull on my attention. I was enjoying the lesson, but it became slightly more difficult to focus on it. My attention wasn’t settling where I wanted it. A year before, I would have erroneously dismissed that sensation as boredom, even though I was very interested in the topic at hand. But I recently learned what that sensation was, and I knew what to do about it. I asked my body if it needed water, receiving a negative response. I asked my body if it needed food. That resulted in a positive response. I asked his body if it needed the regular meal it tended to ask for. Another positive response. Those questions took a couple seconds.

I wanted to keep listening to the professor with my full attention, so I started unpacking my food. While I was doing that, I intended to listen to the professor in order to eat my food. It didn’t matter that listening to the professor didn’t actually help me eat. It just mattered that I included listening to the professor in my intended plan to satiate my need to eat. Just like walking to your fridge is a steppingstone to getting food and eating, I conceptually put listening to my professor as a steppingstone to eating. As soon as I did that, I got my full attention back. I continued to unpack my food and eat while paying full attention to the lecture.

Charting Your Attention

As mentioned in the previous section, I used charts to help me stay aware of my attention and other factors. Here is a similar chart to the one that I used for attention:

Attention tracking chart. Draw lines throughout the day to track your attention.


The chart that I used split the days at 8pm instead of midnight, for convenience, but that can be confusing for some, and everyone’s schedule is a little different. My chart was also split into 10-minute intervals instead of 15-minute intervals, but that can be harder to read and use. Here’s an example of how to use the chart:

Example of a filled-out attention tracking chart.


Explanation of the chart content:

  • I was asleep at the start of the day.
  • I woke up at 7am.
  • At 7:30am I had a slight pull on my attention. I was distracted, so I couldn’t check it for 15 minutes. Turns out, I needed to eat. I went to get some breakfast, restoring my attention to normal immediately.
  • At 11am, my attention felt odd. It wasn’t a pull, but it wasn’t ideal either. That was a need to walk around that hadn’t come up fully yet. It was being inhibited by other needs encouraging what I was doing at the time. I walked around, restoring my attention immediately.
  • At 2pm I had a strong pull on my attention. I knew I needed something, and I was looking for it. But I couldn’t figure out what the need causing it was, so I couldn’t satiate it.
  • At 4pm I still hadn’t figured out what that need was. This is frustrating. My body agrees, apparently, since I hit breakpoint and the pull on my attention greatly decreased. My body isn’t as responsive to my questions.
  • At 9:30pm I figured out what the need was. I’ve been indoors too much. It’s the need to go chase the skyball. No one ever expects the skyball. Nothing I can do about it now. I’m going to bed.
  • At 10pm I fell asleep and was asleep for the rest of the day.

I actually did have a day that ended similarly to this. That was actually how I discovered the skyball need. That need took hours to figure out, and by the time I understood what the need was, there was nothing that I could do about it. Needs are rarely that difficult to figure out or work with, but difficult to identify needs do come up occasionally.

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 Raffaelli Q, Mills C, Christoff K. The knowns and unknowns of boredom: A review of the literature. Experimental brain research. 2018;9:2451-2462. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00221-017-4922-7
  2. Smallwood J, Schooler JW. The science of mind wandering: Empirically navigating the stream of consciousness. Annual Review of Psychology. 2015;66:487–518. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010814-015331
  3. Soukup T, W. LB, Weigl M, Green JSA, Sevdalis N. An Integrated Literature Review of Time-on-Task Effects With a Pragmatic Framework for Understanding and Improving Decision-Making in Multidisciplinary Oncology Team Meetings. Frontiers in Psychology. July 2019;10:1245. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01245
  4. Gui D, Xu S, Zhu S, et al. Resting spontaneous activity in the default mode network predicts performance decline during prolonged attention workload. NeuroImage. 2015:323-330. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.07.030