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Attention and Effort: Understanding the Relationship

cognition cognitive load dual tasking hit intensity May 30, 2024
High Intensity Training and Cognition

Attention and Effort:

  • Definition: Attention is the cognitive process of selectively concentrating on a specific aspect of information, whether deemed subjective or objective, while ignoring other perceivable information. Effort, in this context, refers to the mental energy required to maintain focused attention.
  • Attention and Effort in Cognitive Processing: Maintaining attention, especially during complex or demanding tasks, requires significant cognitive effort. This involves engaging multiple brain regions and expending physiological energy, including the consumption of glucose and oxygen by the brain, which affects mitochondrial activity and cortical network communication.

High Intensity Training (HIT) and Cognitive Function

High Intensity Training (HIT):

  • Argument for HIT: Proponents argue that high intensity training, which elevates heart rate significantly, can enhance cognitive function and recovery. The rationale is that the physical effort and cardiovascular stress involved in HIT stimulate various physiological responses that benefit the brain.
  • Effort and Cognitive Benefits: Effort in HIT is thought to improve cognitive function through several mechanisms:
    • Increased Blood Flow: Elevating heart rate increases blood flow to the brain, delivering more oxygen and nutrients, which supports cognitive processes.
    • Neurogenesis and Neuroplasticity: Physical exercise, especially intense exercise, promotes the growth of new neurons and the formation of new neural connections.
    • Release of Neurotransmitters: HIT triggers the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine, which enhance attention and mood.

Capacity Sharing Theory and Cognitive Effort

Capacity Sharing Theory:

  • Core Concept: Cognitive resources are finite and shared between tasks. The performance of dual tasks depends on how these limited resources are allocated. Tasks that demand significant cognitive effort draw more heavily on these resources.
  • Resource Depletion: Prolonged or intense cognitive tasks can deplete these resources, leading to mental fatigue and reduced performance. This depletion affects physiological processes, including mitochondrial function and cortical network efficiency.

Integrating HIT and Capacity Sharing Theory

Physiological Energy and Cognitive Function:

  • Mitochondrial Activity: Cognitive effort involves mitochondrial activity, which produces the energy (ATP) necessary for neuronal function. Intense cognitive tasks increase the demand for ATP, straining mitochondrial capacity.
  • Cortical Network Communication: Efficient communication between cortical networks is crucial for cognitive processing. High cognitive demand can disrupt this communication if resources are depleted, leading to cognitive fatigue.

Balancing Physical and Cognitive Effort:

  • Effective Intensity: While HIT can boost cognitive function by improving physiological conditions (e.g., increased blood flow, neurogenesis), the cognitive effort itself must be managed to avoid overloading cognitive resources.
  • Capacity Theory Implications: According to capacity sharing theory, the brain has a limited pool of resources. If high intensity physical training demands excessive cognitive effort (e.g., maintaining focus on complex movements), it could deplete resources available for other cognitive tasks.

Key Points:

  1. Physiological Support for Cognition: HIT improves physiological conditions that support cognitive function, such as increased cerebral blood flow and enhanced neuroplasticity.
  2. Resource Allocation: Cognitive tasks require attention and effort, which deplete cognitive resources. Effective cognitive function depends on balancing these demands.
  3. Managing Cognitive Load: To optimize cognitive function and recovery, it's important to manage both physical and cognitive loads. Excessive cognitive effort during HIT could counteract some benefits by overloading cognitive resources.


While high intensity training has clear benefits for cognitive function through physiological mechanisms, the cognitive effort involved must be balanced to avoid depleting cognitive resources. Capacity sharing theory highlights the importance of managing cognitive load to maintain optimal cognitive performance. This means integrating HIT with strategies that ensure cognitive tasks do not overly drain mental resources, allowing for effective cognitive function and recovery.

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