ARTICLES

THE REAL DANGERS OF IMAGINARY FATIGUE

Nervous strain or even boredom can be more exhausting than overwork, researchers have discovered. FRANKLIN RUSSELL tells why your emotions can wear you out, and what you may be able to do about it

FRANKLIN RUSSELL July 16 1960
ARTICLES

THE REAL DANGERS OF IMAGINARY FATIGUE

Nervous strain or even boredom can be more exhausting than overwork, researchers have discovered. FRANKLIN RUSSELL tells why your emotions can wear you out, and what you may be able to do about it

FRANKLIN RUSSELL July 16 1960

THE REAL DANGERS OF IMAGINARY FATIGUE

Nervous strain or even boredom can be more exhausting than overwork, researchers have discovered. FRANKLIN RUSSELL tells why your emotions can wear you out, and what you may be able to do about it

FRANKLIN RUSSELL

FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS men have suffered from something they have called fatigue, or tiredness, or weariness. This was the fatigue of the Roman galley slave, slumped over his oars after the furious chase of a Mediterranean pirate, the exhaustion of the whipdriven Egyptian pyramid builder. Until very recently, fatigue was thought to be purely physical, regardless of its cause. Ecclesiastes comments: “ . . . and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

But today researchers know there are two quite different types of fatigue. And they are finding that the old type of fatigue—commonly cured by a whistling lash or the threat of death —is the less important type of tiredness.

The really important fatigue is not muscular. It is mental or sensory. Some fatigue researchers call it imaginary. This fatigue can cause extraordinary hallucinations, it can give you boils, hot feet, skin diseases and countless other ailments. It can put you to sleep at the wheel of a car, even though you know that sleep will mean almost certain death. It may even drive you to suicide or into a mental home.

It is the reason why the twentieth century has been called “the age of chronic tiredness.” why there are so many patent medicines to cure “tired blood” and why so many books have been written recently on how to “cure” tiredness.

“It is a strange paradox,” Dr. Marion Hilliard, Toronto’s famed women’s doctor, said shortly before her recent death, “that in a world filled with devices to save time and labor we are nearly all sufferers from fatigue.”

The scientists are finding that the housewife may become exhausted doing practically noth-

ing, that the ledgerkeeper may be more exhausted after a day with his books than a ditchdigger after a tough day with a pick and shovel. They are finding that boredom, resentment, anger, hatred, worry and fear can cause permanent fatigue from which sleep and rest give no relief. “In fact.” said Dr. Hilliard, “fatigue follows in the wake of every violent emotion known to man."

But most importantly, the latest fatigue research is showing that this mental tiredness, or imaginary fatigue, or whatever you like to call it. may be having a vast, hidden effect on our lives. The tired senses, they are finding, can trick human beings into doing the most extraordinary things.

They may cause a driver who has been accident-free for forty years to speed through a red light and have an accident. They can make a careful pedestrian suddenly walk in front of a streetcar, or an experienced machine operator cut off a finger.

The mystery of these fatigued senses is causing a mass of research all over the world, seeking reasons and cures. The scientists arc just starting to come up with some answers to the mystery.

“The mind,” says Dr. John W. Lovett-Doust, director of the research labs at the Toronto Psychiatric Hospital, “consists of two processes, central and peripheral. The central process is constantly fed information by the peripheral processes about what’s going on in the outside world. It can’t operate properly unless it is getting a constant stream of information.

“But if the peripheral processes become bored, fatigued or deadened by routine or distasteful work, they CONTINUED ON PAGE 34

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The real dangers of imaginary fatigue

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Despite shouted warnings from ground control, the pilot put his huge plane down on a warehouse

slow down or stop communicating with the central process. It compensates by conjuring up daydreams, fantasies, inattention and, ultimately, hallucinations.”

Since the central process decides a person’s actions, the fatigue of the peripheral processes can easily cause irrational action. Late in 1954, an Italian airliner tried for two hours to land in bad weather at Idlewild Airport, New York. The pilot's judgment became erratic. Finally, despite shouted warnings from ground control, he put his huge plane down on a warehouse about two miles short of the runway.

Fatigue researchers know that flying a big airplane, even in bad weather conditions, is well within the mental and physical capacities of the ordinary pilot. But the Italian pilot may have exhausted himself and his judgment trying to cope with the difficulties of the landing. In the end, he performed a totally irrational act.

A few days earlier, Captain Norman Ramsay, a pilot of long experience, landed his TCA Super Constellation in open fields near Brampton, Ont., miles short of Malton Airport. The Canadian Air Lines Pilots’ Association blamed fatigue for the accident. Both pilots may have been victims of tired senses that tricked them into believing they were doing the right thing.

An even more graphic example of this occurred in October 1952, when a train from Perth to London, England, went through two warning signals and two stop signals and at full speed smashed into trains standing at Harrow Station. One hundred and twenty died, including the driver of the Perth train.

When Dr. Russell Davis of Cambridge University investigated the accident, he found the driver had been plagued first by a thirty-minute starting delay and then by recurrent patches of fog. Being an extremely conscientious driver of long experience, he worried about the delays and perhaps even “exhausted” himself in his efforts to get back on schedule. As he sped on to his destination, he must have seen the stop signals, but his exhausted senses simply refused to accept the evidence of his own eyes.

Other researchers at Cambridge once conducted an experiment that confirmed this trickery of the tired senses. In a mocked-up bomber cockpit they subjected pilots to dozens of simulated crises. After a very short time, the pilots were taking longer and longer to react to emergencies, until eventually they angrily began blaming their instruments for being wrong. In other words, their tired senses rebelled and refused to accept what they actually saw.

This sort of fatigue which tricks the senses so successfully may have its most terrifying effects on car and truck drivers. For some years it’s been known that truck drivers on long trips may have strange hallucinations while driving. Dr. Alfred L. Mosley, a Harvard psychologist, interviewed many truckers and found that some had seen imaginary trains crossing the road. One had been delayed because he claimed he could not pass a non-existent house being towed

up the road ahead of him. A Quebec truck driver who recently put his rig in a ditch had been trying to avoid an ocean liner he saw steaming across the road.

The truckers were all sane, emotionally well-balanced men, and for a long time their peculiar hallucinations were a mystery. But a couple of years ago, Dr. D. O. Hebb, professor of psychology at McGill University, came up with a possible answer.

He locked up psychology students in separate rooms. They wore translucent goggles, to prevent their seeing patterns, and a humming noise prevented them from hearing anything clearly. They were fed but had nothing else to do except sleep. Within twenty-four hours, they were having hallucinations. With their eyes wide open, they clearly saw floating helmets, masses of spectacles and men traveling in bathtubs; they felt electric shocks, were strafed by fighters and heard Chopin.

Dr. Hebb had effectively cut off any chance of the peripheral processes to keep a steady stream of information feeding into the central process. He deadened the senses with sheer inactivity. The truck drivers’ senses were deadened similarly by the boredom of their long hauls.

A revolt against distasteful work

The extent to which people can be tricked by their fatigued senses while doing everyday tasks is not yet known, but it may be vast. Even distasteful work can produce emotional trickery. Gerald E. Tooke, a Toronto designer of stained glass windows, once suffered almost constantly from headaches, stomach upsets and “the most appalling fatigue” when he worked for a Toronto stained-glass designing company. Later, when he set up his own business, all these symptoms disappeared.

“I realize now,” he says, "that I really hated doing Victorian-type designs for my employer. It was exhausting me.” Actually, Tooke’s peripheral processes, in rebellion over the distasteful work, were cutting down their reporting to his central consciousness. This threw many of his body’s functions out of kilter. But today, he is a new man and sometimes starts his own work at six in the morning.

Tooke was lucky. He could quit the work he disliked. But thousands of people in modern society must constantly do work that bores, and thus tires them. What can be done about them?

There is new hope for them today. During World War II the British found that sightings of enemy aircraft and submarines were high early in watches but later slumped seriously. In checking this for the British Medical Research Council, a psychologist, Dr. N. H. Mackworth, found that radar operators actually got so "tired” that their observing efficiency fell steeply in the first thirty minutes of looking at their screens. He theorized that since nobody could really be tired in such a short time, then he had to do something to regain their attention. He bombarded them with telephone calls

which complimented their vigilance or criticized their lack of it. He shortened their viewing hours. By getting their attention. he kept their observing efficiency high all the time.

What he had done was engage their peripheral processes more fully. By maintaining the correct balance between the two processes, he banished boredom and fatigue.

Later, Dr. Mackworth went on with his work at the Defense Research Medical Laboratories at Toronto. Refinements of his work may eventually save thou-

sands from this illusory “fatigue” of the senses. It may keep DEW-Linc radar operators alert and fatigue-free at their round-the-clock observing work.

One of Dr. Mackworth’s colleagues. Dr. C. H. Baker, explains how this works in theory: "A black box feeds a series of false signals into the radar sets, but of course, the operators don't know which are true and which arc false. A supervisor monitors the observer’s work. If he’s working accurately, the supervisor calls him and compliments his work. If his vigilance slips,

the supervisor calls and tells him to snap out of it."

This system succeeds because of two things: There is always something to watch for on the screen, and the operator is constantly aware of how well, or how badly, he is doing. "This keeps him on his toes. He doesn't get tired and bored.” says Baker. In other words, it successfully engages both mental processes mentioned before.

This system of keeping radar men alert may hold the answer to the fatigue of thousands—or millions—in ordinary life.

Dr. Robert B. Malmo, director of the Laboratory for Psychological Studies at the Allan Memorial Institute of Psychiatry, Montreal, recently showed that it can be used to raise the operating efficiency of the human body to seemingly superhuman levels. Working with a colleague. Dr. W. W. Surville, kept three healthy young men constantly awake for sixty hours. During that time, they had to concentrate on keeping a radio signal in tune. Immediately they got out of tune, an electric element that was wrapped round their legs heated up as a warning. The astounding thing about Dr. Malmo's experiment was that after sixty sleepless hours, one of the subjects improved his signal-tuning accuracy. The second man maintained his accuracy, and the third man showed a definite loss of accuracy.

"In other words," says Dr. Malmo, "as long as a person is engrossed in his task and keeps constantly aware of how well or badly he is doing, he may not experience what we call fatigue. In fact, our experiments showed that physical functions were actually heightened. Instead of getting sleepy, these men became more wide awake.”

Dr. Malmo’s work could be useful to keep men working at top efficiency during emergencies, such as wars or national disasters. Dr. Baker of DRML envisages dramatic applications of this sort of work in the near future. Industrial inspectors could have near-perfect records. Car and truck drivers could be stopped from falling asleep at the wheel.

Challenge — a spur to work

The principles of such experiments may be easily applied to ordinary life. "When the tired and bored housewife is given challenging work, she may become alert and full of energy," says a Toronto psychiatrist. "The husband who takes an interest in his wife's housekeeping may find she redoubles her efforts."

Though these new developments a rtf not cure-alls for all types of tired people, they have revealed many of the deeper mysteries of the phenomenon. We know now why Robert Owen found in 1816 that a ten-and-a-half-hour day yielded more production in his mills than a fourteen-hour day. By so drastically shortening the working day he got the full interest and attention of his workers and they strove harder. They were probably less tired, too. We know how right was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche when he advised a friend to "live dangerously." He knew what the scientists arc proving today: human beings do their best work under the constant spur of challenge. All their mental processes are engaged and hard at work.

A twenty-two-year-old Toronto actor, Dennis Stanway, used to suffer from chronic fatigue. "I felt like death," he recalls. But then he discovered he felt refreshed when he worked hard. He read hundreds of plays and theatre books, spent every spare moment in practice rehearsals. He had accidentally discovered the secret of Dr. Mack worth’s radar experiments, of Dr. Malmo's sixty-hour vigilance test, of Dr. Hilliard’s exhortations to seek challenging work. He had engrossed the attention of his peripheral senses, uncovering surprising stores of hidden energy.

But for most people, such relief is still beyond reach. Not understanding the real nature of their fatigue, they are trapped in a mesh of inertia and lethargy.

"I discovered accidentally how to beat my fatigue,” says Stanway. "I sometimes wonder how many millions there must be in the world who never do find out." -fa