Two strategies for combating mental fatigue

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

woman wearing headphones and reading a book
Photo by Getty Images
  • 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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