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Two strategies for combating mental fatigue

Research from Denmark finds that mindfulness and music help sustain attention.

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  • Four weeks of mindfulness training and 12 minutes of binaural beats were found to increase attentional capacities after being mentally fatigued.
  • This research from the University of Southern Denmark provides important interventions during a stressful time.
  • Mental fatigue leads to higher incidences of workplace and traffic accidents as well as an inability to retain information.

Mental fatigue is always a problem in our distraction-heavy world, but it's particularly troublesome as we constantly check for the latest updates on the state of our societal health. Specifically, mental fatigue occurs after extended periods of cognitive demand. This results in an inability to focus on tasks and can often lead to accidents and an inability to retain information.


Since the advent of the smartphone plenty of research has focused on helping us combat mental fatigue. In his bestselling book, Matthew B. Crawford suggests craftsmanship—he left a D.C. think tank to become a motorcycle mechanic—is as intellectually stimulating as it is physically demanding, improving attentional skills. For others, such as computer science professor Cal Newport, it means getting off of social media and only checking email once a day.

Fixing antique motorcycles or eschewing social media is not in everyone's cards, however. Thus, practices like meditation have entered the national conversation. Though some question its validity as a performance enhancement technique—they believe it should only be a tool for spiritual development and self-introspection—there's solid evidence that a regular practice offsets attentional deficits.

All it takes is 10 mindful minutes | Andy Puddicombe

Then there's an intriguing new study from the University of Southern Denmark Faculty of Health Sciences. The team of Johanne L. Axelsen, Ulrich Kirk, and Walter Staiano (from the University of Valencia) discovered that the combination of mindfulness meditation and binaural beats helps combat mental fatigue and regain attentional abilities.

Binaural beats are two tones, one played in each ear at slightly different frequencies. An auditory illusion occurs when your brain produces a beat at the junction of those two frequencies. Thus far, research has been spotty on their efficacy. Most positive reviews have been anecdotal. For some people they seem to have no effect. For others (such as myself) they make a great accompaniment to a meditation practice. Beyond focus, binaural beats are said to help reduce anxiety, increase relaxation, and assist in creating positive moods.

Four groups were invited to partake in this research: a novice mindfulness group, an experienced mindfulness group, a binaural beats group, and a control group. For this study, the team conducted five phases:

  • Volunteers' moods were assessed using the Brunel Mood Scale (BRUMS), after which they completed a sustained attention task (SART)
  • They were given a 90-minute mental fatigue treatment using a AX-CPT task
  • Their mood was again assessed, followed by immediate interventions
  • One group listened to a 12-minute mindfulness meditation provided by Headspace; another group listened to 12 minutes of binaural beats; a third group was told to relax for 12 minutes
  • Finally, each volunteer was again given a sustained attention task

Spring Point Ledge Light looms in the background while Ezra Silk of Portland practices mindfulness and loving kindness mediation on East End Beach Monday morning.

Staff photo by Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

The SART was designed to fatigue the groups. As the team writes,

"The results showed that the music group and the experienced mindfulness group were least affected by mental fatigue and its effect on the SART %NoGo success rate, whereas performance of the control group and the novice mindfulness group was reduced by mental fatigue."

Those with a longstanding mindfulness practice and a history of using binaural beats seem to maintain sustained attention even after being fatigued. Less experienced meditators are more easily tired, while those told "just relax" without a framework also fared poorly. The team found that four weeks of mindfulness training was enough to help combat cognitive exhaustion.

Such information is always useful, but especially so at this moment. Times of uncertainty are cognitively brutal. This is the first time in history that the entire world is experiencing an epidemic while being connected to social media. In some ways, it can be calming, but the opposite is also occurring, with conspiracy theories and misinformation rampant.

Unplugging, as Newport suggests, is great for your mental health, but let's face it: many of us will keep our eyes glued to the screen. Taking some time out, even 12 minutes, appears to help. Right now, we'll take progress in inches.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

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What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth

Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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