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A comparison of methods used for inducing mental fatigue in performance research: individualised, dual-task and short duration cognitive tests are most effective.

01 Jan 2020-Ergonomics (Loughborough University)-Vol. 63, Iss: 1, pp 1-12
TL;DR: This study compared different methods and confirmed that short, individualised and dual-task tests are most effective for inducing mental fatigue whilst maintaining arousal.
Abstract: Despite research indicating the negative impact that mental fatigue has on physical and cognitive performance, whether this is a result of mental fatigue or a state of under-arousal remains unclear. The current research aimed to explore the effectiveness of the methods being used to induce mental fatigue. Twelve participants attended six sessions in which two cognitive tests, the AX-continuous performance test (AX-CPT) and the TloadDback test, were compared for their effectiveness in inducing mental fatigue. Both tests were set at a standard processing speed (1.2 ms) for two conditions, and a further condition involved the individualisation of the TloadDback test. Participants presented significantly higher physiological and psychological arousal (p < 0.05) in the individualised dual-task test compared to the AX-CPT. The individualised TloadDback test is a more effective method of inducing mental fatigue compared to the AX-CPT, as it sustains physiological arousal whilst inducing measurable reductions in mental resources. Practitioner summary: Mental fatigue negatively impacts physical and cognitive performance. It is unclear whether the current methods being used to induce mental fatigue are effective. This study compared different methods and confirmed that short, individualised and dual-task tests are most effective for inducing mental fatigue whilst maintaining arousal.

Summary (4 min read)

1. Introduction

  • In contrast to this Boksem & Tops (2008) present that even short tasks can lead to measurable evidence of reduced cognitive resources.
  • Similarly, for control conditions, studies have often utilised time matched, emotionally neutral documentaries.

2.1 Procedure

  • Twelve participants aged 26.5 ± 3.12 years, including seven females and five males, were required to be physically active and not have any history of neurological injury.
  • The study procedures were approved by the Loughborough University ethics committee, and all procedures were conducted in compliance with the Declaration of Helsinki (1964).
  • All participants were paid for their participation pro rata.
  • The study consisted of six trials, including one familiarisation session and five main experimental trials, each conducted on separate days.

2.2 Familiarisation and individualisation session

  • In the familiarisation session, participants were accustomed to both the subjective (see section: Subjective Ratings) and objective measures (see sections: Galvanic Skin Conductance and Heart Rate Variability) of the study.
  • The secondary task involves the classic n-back paradigm - a series of letters were presented, and participants responded by pressing the space bar, with the left hand, when the letter currently being presented was identical to the letter that was presented immediately before.
  • Prior to starting the final stage, the individualisation process , participants took a long break to ensure that the onset of mental fatigue was limited.
  • The individual stimulus time detection (i.e. shortest stimulus rate a person can process the incoming information at) was found when a person was no longer able to maintain accuracy greater than 85%, signifying that a participant had reached their cognitive load limit (Borragán et al. 2017).
  • This speed was then used for the individualised TloadDback test in the main trials.

2.3 Main experimental trials

  • Of the experimental conditions, two were designed to recreate potential ‘control’ conditions for mental fatigue studies , and the remaining three experimental conditions aimed to induce mental fatigue using different cognitive tests .
  • The documentaries were: The History of the Ferrari: The Definitive story (Boulevard Entertainment 2006) and The Venice Simplon Orient Express (Beardsall and Garofalo 2004).
  • In the current study the TloadDback STD was performed with a standardised letter/number presentation time of 1200-ms in order to effectively compare to the AXCPT, and elicit a low cognitive load (Borragán et al. 2017).
  • Trials were counterbalanced, and participants were requested to come in at the same time of day for each trial, in a similar physical and psychological state as the previous trial.
  • All test stimuli (letters and numbers) appeared in the centre of the screen, in white font (Times New Roman) against a black background.

2.4 Subjective ratings

  • Subjective scales were used to monitor self-reported scores of mental fatigue, mood, sleepiness, and motivation.
  • A 10-point visual analogue scale was used to assess mental fatigue with 0 representing “no fatigue” and 10 representing “worst possible fatigue”.
  • Motivation was manipulated through offering a monetary bonus as a result of attaining over 50% on average across all tests and monitored via the task and success motivation scales (Matthews et al. 2013).
  • Mood change is also characteristic of mental fatigue (Boksem and Tops 2008).
  • Subjective scores of sleepiness using The Stanford Sleepiness Scale (SSS) (Hoddes et al. 1973) was also implicated.

2.5 Galvanic skin conductance

  • GSC was measured by applying two electrodes to the glabrous skin (Boucsein et al. 2012) on the inside of the foot which passed a low voltage through the skin which recorded skin conductance.
  • GSC was measured in micro-Siemens (μS) and was analyzed using the MatLAB compatible software, Ledalab (Benedek and Kaernbach 2010).
  • Arousal was measured by analyzing the phasic level of the galvanic skin conductance data as it related to the activation of the sympathetic nervous system.
  • Raw data was imported from the Biopac output files (ACQ).
  • Step 1; the data was corrected for artifacts by removing any physical movements that resulted in clear changes in electrodermal activity.

2.6 Heart rate variability

  • Heart rate variability was collected using an Equivital (Hidalgo, UK) life monitor system.
  • The system collected an array of variables including heart rate, breathing rate, ECG data, skin temperature and interbeat intervals (IBI).
  • The extracted IBI data was transferred from excel to a text file where it was then imported to the Kubios HRV standard software.
  • Once imported, the data was passed through a very low artefact correction threshold (Tarvainen et al. 2014).
  • In the time domain, to assess vagal tone, the root mean square of the successive difference was calculated and has been shown to be highly correlated with parasympathetic activity (Laborde et al. 2017).

2.7 Data analysis

  • A one-way multivariate analysis of variance was used to determine differences between groups of related dependent variables.
  • One-way, repeated measures analysis of variances were used for further analysis of the differences between conditions, with subsequent analysis of pairwise comparisons across conditions when the MANOVA was significant.
  • Paired sample T-tests were used to determine differences from pre-to post-test within conditions.
  • When Mauchly’s Test of Sphericity was significant (p < 0.05), the Greenhouse-Geisser adjustment was used.

3.3 Subjective mental fatigue: Visual analogue scale

  • There were no significant differences in subjective pre-test mental fatigue scores across conditions, p = 0.652.
  • Across conditions there were also significant differences between post-test mental fatigue scores (p < 0.001).
  • The individualised TloadDback produced the highest subjective scores of mental fatigue (4.4 ± 2.7) .

3.4 Stanford sleepiness scale

  • There were no significant differences in pre-test sleepiness scores across conditions, p = 0.726.
  • Across conditions, post-test scores saw further significant differences (p < 0.001).

3.5 Subjective motivation

  • Motivation questionnaires were analyzed in terms of task motivation and success motivation (Matthews et al., 2013).
  • Results indicated that participants significantly decreased in task motivation in all conditions (p ≤ 0.025), except the set-up control (p = 0.062) .
  • With regards success motivation, the individualised TloadDback, the standardised TloadDback and the set-up control presented no significant changes in success motivation from pre to post-test, p ≥ 0.125 .
  • Likewise, the AX-CPT presented a reduction in success motivation by 30% and was significantly reduced when compared to the individualised TloadDback test, p = 0.05.

3.7 Overview of results

  • To summarize, a ranked referencing system presents the main findings from the analysis (Table 1).
  • The three methods for inducing mental fatigue and the documentary control were ranked in order from 1 being the ‘worst’ to 4 being the ‘best’ for inducing mental fatigue and maintaining arousal across all measures.
  • Reverse ranking is in place for the measures of VASF, SSS, fatigue , RMSSD and PNN50, as the lower the reported scores, the better the performance of the condition for inducing mental fatigue whilst maintaining arousal.
  • The set-up control was excluded as it was the ‘best’ ranked or not applicable across all measures.

4.1 Current methods and mental fatigue

  • This study aimed to explore the effectiveness of the current methods used for inducing mental fatigue.
  • Through investigating the differences in both objective and subjective arousal measures, the results concluded that the single task AX-CPT left participants in a state of under-arousal post-test.
  • Conversely, both the standardised and individualised version of the dual task TloadDback test left participants in a neutral state of arousal posttest.
  • Subjective levels of mental fatigue post-test confirm that prolonged attention to a cognitive task will induce mental fatigue.
  • Subjective sleepiness scores confirm a much higher level of sleepiness in the AX-CPT when compared to the TloadDback tests.

4.2 Performance and arousal

  • Overall, the individualised version of the TloadDback test produced the highest levels of mental fatigue and maintained greater levels of arousal.
  • When compared to the standardised TloadDback test, the individualised version sustained higher levels of arousal, mental fatigue and motivation levels.
  • The maintenance of a higher cognitive load has previously been shown to induce mental fatigue faster and to a greater extent (Borragán et al. 2017).
  • Similarly, heart rate variability, reported as RMSSD and PNN50, presented higher levels of arousal.
  • This is reflected in lower levels of RMSSD and PNN50 in the individualised TloadDback test.

4.3 Mood and motivation

  • In the review by Van Cutsem et al. (2017), the importance of considering paradigms such as motivation and boredom is highlighted when tasks that incur long durations are utilised.
  • On the contrary, whilst the standardised version of the TloadDback test did decrease minimally over time in both task and success motivation, the individualised version of the TloadDback test increased over time in success motivation and decreased minimally in task motivation.
  • All mental fatigue trials induced substantial mood change.
  • A large decrease in vigour is seen in the AX-CPT, whilst in comparison, the individualised TloadDback test saw only a minimal decrease.
  • Furthermore, the AX-CPT saw an increase in depression and anger, whilst the individualised TloadDback test saw a notable increase in confusion post-test.

4.4 Control conditions and arousal

  • It was hypothesised that the time-matched documentary control condition would elicit lower levels of arousal when compared to the set-up control.
  • Results from this study indicate that the documentary control elicited a similar arousal response to the AX-CPT.
  • With regards heart rate variability both the set-up control and documentary control presented high levels of RMSSD and PNN50 indicating lower levels of cognitive stress or parasympathetic activation.
  • A questionnaire for explorative purposes was included to assess whether participants would remain emotionally neutral from such documentary topics.
  • In conclusion, 60% of participants reported that they would be bored from watching a documentary on trains, and 25% reported that they would be bored from watching a documentary on Ferraris.

4.5 Implications

  • Previous studies investigating the impact of mental fatigue on physical performance have largely found that it does negatively impact performance (Marcora et al.
  • The implications of this study question whether mental fatigue was induced independently of sleepiness, and if the mental fatigue test itself was the main impactor on physical performance.
  • This non-individualised test induces psychological states of boredom, demotivation, depressive and anger mood states, loss of attention and underarousal, confirmed both subjectively and objectively.
  • Previous research has incorporated the use of brain monitoring strategies such as electroencephalography (EEG) (Trejo et al.

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A comparison of methods used for inducing mental fatigue in
performance research: Individualised, dual-task and short duration
cognitive tests are most effective.
Kate O’Keeffe
a
, Simon Hodder
a
and Alex Lloyd
a
*
a
Environmental Ergonomics Research Centre, Loughborough University, UK.
* Corresponding Author:
Alex Lloyd, PhD.
Environmental Ergonomics Research Centre
James France Building, Design School
Loughborough University
Leicestershire, LE11 3TU
Email: A.Lloyd@lboro.ac.uk
Dr. Simon Hodder: S.Hodder@lboro.ac.uk
Kate O’Keeffe: k.e.okeeffe@lboro.ac.uk

A comparison of methods used for inducing mental fatigue in
performance research: Individualised, dual-task and short duration
cognitive tests are most effective.
Despite research indicating the negative impact that mental fatigue has on physical
and cognitive performance, whether this is a result of mental fatigue or a state of
under-arousal remains unclear. The current research aimed to explore the
effectiveness of the methods being used to induce mental fatigue. Twelve
participants attended six sessions in which two cognitive tests, the AX-continuous
performance test (AX-CPT) and the TloadDback test, were compared for their
effectiveness in inducing mental fatigue. Both tests were set at a standard
processing speed (1.2 ms) for two conditions, and a further condition involved the
individualisation of the TloadDback test. Participants presented significantly
higher physiological and psychological arousal (p < 0.05) in the individualised dual
task test compared to the AX-CPT. The individualised TloadDback test is a more
effective method of inducing mental fatigue compared to the AX-CPT, as it
sustains physiological arousal whilst inducing measurable reductions in mental
resources.
Keywords: mental fatigue, arousal, galvanic skin conductance, heart rate variability,
cognitive loading
Practitioner Summary: Mental fatigue negatively impacts physical and cognitive
performance. It is unclear whether the current methods being used to induce mental
fatigue are effective. This study compared different methods and confirmed that short,
individualised and dual task tests are most effective for inducing mental fatigue whilst
maintaining arousal.
Word count: 5638

1. Introduction
Mental fatigue impacts performance in many professions (Boksem & Tops 2008;
Gergelyfi et al. 2015) and is one of the most common causes of accidents and errors in
the modern world (Lew and Qu 2014; Tanaka 2015) Research conducted on the
characteristics of mental fatigue define it as a psychobiological state (Marcora et al. 2009)
that is characterized subjectively by a lack of energy and lethargy, and/or objectively as
a reduction in the ability to complete cognitive tasks (Boksem & Tops 2008; Qian et al.
2015). Mental fatigue manifests as a result of utilising and overusing the brains resources.
This leads to a reduced competence of the brain to undertake cognitive workloads
efficiently (Tanaka 2015). Due to the accumulative decrease in productivity and increase
in errors, both physical (Marcora et al. 2009; Smith et al. 2016) and cognitive
performance can be reduced as a result of mental fatigue (Holtzer et al. 2011; Tanaka et
al. 2014). It is therefore necessary to explore methods to counteract the negative impact
of mental fatigue on human performance.
All definitions in the current literature surrounding the impact of mental fatigue on
physical and cognitive performance outline the importance of cognitive activity over
prolonged periods of time for effective inducement of mental fatigue (van der Linden et
al. 2003; Boksem & Tops 2008; Marcora et al. 2009). However, the level and duration of
cognitive activity required to induce mental fatigue is unclear. In their review, Van
Cutsem et al. (2017) implicitly emphasized the importance of task duration for inducing
subjective mental fatigue i.e. cognitive tests that were shorter than 30-minutes were
excluded, and of the eleven articles that were included, seven articles used cognitive tests
that lasted for a period of 90-minutes or longer. The main test utilised in these studies was
the 90-minutes version of the AX-continuous performance test (AX-CPT), which requires

low levels of cognitive activity and processing. In contrast to this Boksem & Tops (2008)
present that even short tasks can lead to measurable evidence of reduced cognitive
resources. Furthermore, as discussed by Borragán et al. (2017), mental fatigue is
independent from general fatigue and sleepiness. When taken together, these studies
question whether current methods that involve prolonged effort are inducing mental
fatigue per se, or rather a psychological and physiological state of under-arousal (i.e.
sleepiness, boredom).
A key psychophysiological state that the present study aims to explore in correlation with
sleepiness and performance levels, is arousal. In performance research, arousal is used as
both a psychological and physiological state of alertness, the feeling of being activated or
energized, and it is not synonymous with stress or anxiety (Perkins and Wilson 2001). To
achieve consistent optimal performance, research has indicated the need to achieve
optimal arousal states prior to performance (Ruiz et al. 2017). Previous research
investigating mental fatigue, has utilised a ‘pre-performance’ style methodology,
whereby prior to physical performance participants are required to undertake a cognitive
test with the goal to induce a state of mental fatigue (Marcora et al. 2009; Pageaux et al.
2014; Martin et al. 2016; Smith et al. 2016). Similarly, for control conditions, studies
have often utilised time matched, emotionally neutral documentaries. However, previous
research does not determine whether participants felt ‘emotionally neutral’ towards the
documentaries used. Therefore, it may be that existing methodologies used prior to
endurance and maximal exertion tests cause participants to experience states of under-
arousal. Hence, mental fatigue may not be the sole stressor impacting the subsequent
physical performance.

Individual differences in cognitive abilities are also well documented. Fundamental
differences across individuals encompass the traits of knowledge, skills, aptitude and
achievement (Sackett et al. 2017). Cognitive control therefore is not a unitary ability and
it is erroneous to judge an individual’s cognitive ability based on standardised tests
(Gonthier et al. 2016). Many previous studies inducing mental fatigue have not taken
individual factors into account. Therefore, reliable accounts of whether similar levels of
cognitive effort and thereby mental fatigue were facilitated for all participants remains
unclear (Borragán et al. 2017).
This investigation took a neuropsychological perspective based on the theory of cognitive
loading in conjunction with the time-based resource-sharing model (Barrouillet et al.
2004) to work towards exploring an alternative method of inducing mental fatigue
effectively in psychophysiology and performance research. Cognitive load theory
suggests that the working memory is limited (Paas and Ayres 2014) and the time-based
resource-sharing model (TBRS) (Borragán, et al. 2017) implies that to induce mental
fatigue, what matters is the amount of time a person has to process the incoming stimulus.
This model presents the idea that performance is related to the amount of time needed for
the attention to process ongoing information (Barrouillet et al. 2004). To address the
limitations of tests like the AX-CPT, the present study employed the ‘TloadDback’ which
incorporates both the cognitive loading and time-based resource-sharing paradigms
(Borragán et al. 2017).
To explore the effectiveness of the current methods used for inducing mental fatigue, this
investigation compared the commonly used AX-CPT and the TloadDback tests for
inducing mental fatigue, as well as two methods of control comparisons, a standard set-

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However, the level and duration of cognitive activity required to induce mental fatigue is unclear this paper, and it is not a unitary ability to judge an individual 's cognitive ability.