Although mental fatigue is a complex, multi-facetted state that involves changes in motivation, cognition, and mood, one of its main characteristics is reduced task engagement. Despite its relevance for performance and safety, knowledge about the underlying neurocognitive processes in mental fatigue is still limited. Inspired by the idea that central norepinephrine plays an important role in regulating task engagement, we test a set of predictions that have been derived from recent studies that relate pupil dynamics to the levels of norepinephrine in the brain. Participants worked on a 2-back task for 2 h while we used pupil measures to further explore the link between task engagement and the effects of mental fatigue. We hypothesized that baseline pupil diameter and stimulus-evoked pupil dilations decrease with increasing fatigue. Also, because previous studies have shown that the effects of fatigue are reversible by increasing the task rewards, we hypothesized that increasing the task rewards after 2 h on the task would restore these pupil measures to pre-fatigue levels. While we did not find a decrease in baseline pupil diameter, we found that increasing mental fatigue coincided with diminished stimulus-evoked pupil dilation. Also, we confirmed that when sufficient rewards were presented to a fatigued individual, the pupil dilations could be restored. This supports the view that motivational factors are important in predicting engagement versus disengagement during fatigue.

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Biological Psychology
Department of Industrial and Organizational Psychology

Hopstaken, J., van der Linden, D., Bakker, A., & Kompier, M. (2015). The window of my eyes: Task disengagement and mental fatigue covary with pupil dynamics. Biological Psychology, 110, 100–106. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2015.06.013