Concentration fatigue: French neuroscientists have just understood what thought produces as an effect for our brain


A photo taken at the ski resort of Courchevel in the French Alps shows a Rodin ‘statue of the thinker’ on display at the summit of La Vizelle.©JEAN-PIERRE CLATOT / AFPEfforts Mentally intensive activities can be exhausting. Why does thinking tire us so much? Neuroscientists have just published a study in the journal Cell Biology about how mental performance declines over time and what we can do to take care of our brains. Atlantico: We’ve all noticed that mentally intensive activities can be exhausting. A long day of thinking, even with little physical activity, can make you want to collapse on the couch. How to explain this phenomenon? Why does thinking tire us so much? Mathias Pessiglione: It is not so much thinking that tires us as what we call cognitive control. Control processes are triggered whenever the brain cannot rely on previously learned routines. This is the case when we think about a problem (by definition the solution is not known so there is no automatic response in the store but also in situations that do not require reflection, for example a social situation where we would like to yawn, scratch or leave (automatic responses) but we don’t do it out of respect for decency, or when we do an endurance effort, like a marathon, that the pain tells us to stop (this is the automatic response) but we continue because we want to achieve a certain performance. A day in which a high level of cognitive control must be exercised causes regions of the prefrontal cortex to work continuously. Now the neurons to communicate use a neurotransmitter, glutamate, which is not a problem at low doses but which can be toxic at high doses. If neurons work continuously, they end up accumulating glutamate in the synaptic cleft. In our results, this would be the origin of the fatigue phenomenon: our brain no longer p ot cope with the increase in glutamate in the prefrontal cortex and generates a signal that leads us to stop working and rest. When the prefrontal cortex is put to rest (a fortiori when we sleep), glutamate is progressively removed from the synapses (either reintegrated into the neurons, or converted into glutamine by other cells, the astrocytes). Read alsoWhy it is not enough to study the brain to understand our ways of acting. How did you identify this phenomenon? Using the technique of magnetic resonance spectroscopy, which allows the diffusion of molecules such as glutamate to be measured. Diffusion is faster in open spaces, such as synapses, than in small spaces, such as vesicles within cells. Therefore, increased diffusion indicates the release of glutamate from vesicles into the synaptic cleft. This is what we observed during the day in the prefrontal cortex of participants who performed demanding tasks (requiring a high degree of cognitive control), but not in those who performed the same tasks for the same duration but in an easier version . Furthermore, fatigue in these participants was evident in tests where they were made to choose between several possible options. At the end of the day, they favored options that required neither waiting nor effort, reflecting the fatigue of cognitive control. What is it and how to put it in place? I don’t know, I don’t really know this technique. A priori consists of planning breaks. It’s a bit trivial but yes, taking regular breaks prevents the accumulation of glutamate and therefore works longer without exhausting yourself. But I don’t think burnout is the problem this method is aimed at, rather it’s made to fight procrastination. Are there other similar techniques that allow us to be more efficient at work? What are the rules to know to reduce our cognitive fatigue? Rest and sleep! There are no good alternatives. One could imagine biological interventions, but they are likely to produce side effects and create rebound effects when stopped. We could also eventually try to monitor the state of his prefrontal, perhaps with EEG electrodes placed on the scalp, but this is pure speculation, there is no proof that this system works.
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