How Can We Overcome Mental Fatigue

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Originally posted on August 5, 2014.

We live in an era of mental fatigue. People sleep less, work more, and experience more stress now than any other time in recent history. How can we overcome mental fatigue?

People go to extreme lengths to pep themselves up. They guzzle energy drinks, smoke cigarettes, or drink coffee and tea. But a growing trend, especially among college students, is to use psychotropic medications to battle mental fatigue. Many students abuse the popular drug, methylphenidate (also known as Ritalin), because they think it will improve their concentration when fatigued.

Are the students right? To examine this question, researchers at the University of Michigan randomly assigned students to consume either Ritalin or a placebo pill. Next, the students completed a boring task. Crucially, half of the students completed a version of the task that was not only boring – it also made them mentally exhausted. The rest of the students were bored, but their mental faculties were left intact.

What happened? Taking Ritalin undid the effects of mental fatigue. So, in a way, these findings offer a clue about why students abuse Ritalin. Students might not want a cheap buzz; they may simply want to overcome their exhaustion.

In my next post, I’ll offer five healthier and safer options to deal with mental fatigue.

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About the Author
C. Nathan DeWall is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Psychology Lab at the University of Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from St. Olaf College, a Master’s Degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Florida State University. DeWall received the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award, which recognizes excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching. In 2011, the Association for Psychological Science identified DeWall as a “Rising Star” for “making significant contributions to the field of psychological science.”