Using Signal Detection Theory to Better Understand Cognitive Fatigue

Glenn R. Wylie, Bing Yao, Joshua Sandry, John DeLuca

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


When we are fatigued, we feel that our performance is worse than when we are fresh. Yet, for over 100 years, researchers have been unable to identify an objective, behavioral measure that covaries with the subjective experience of fatigue. Previous work suggests that the metrics of signal detection theory (SDT)—response bias (criterion) and perceptual certainty (d’)—may change as a function of fatigue, but no work has yet been done to examine whether these metrics covary with fatigue. Here, we investigated cognitive fatigue using SDT. We induced fatigue through repetitive performance of the n-back working memory task, while functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data was acquired. We also assessed cognitive fatigue at intervals throughout. This enabled us to assess not only whether criterion and d’ covary with cognitive fatigue but also whether similar patterns of brain activation underlie cognitive fatigue and SDT measures. Our results show that both criterion and d’ were correlated with changes in cognitive fatigue: as fatigue increased, subjects became more conservative in their response bias and their perceptual certainty declined. Furthermore, activation in the striatum of the basal ganglia was also related to cognitive fatigue, criterion, and d’. These results suggest that SDT measures represent an objective measure of cognitive fatigue. Additionally, the overlap and difference in the fMRI results between cognitive fatigue and SDT measures indicate that these measures are related while also separate. In sum, we show the relevance of SDT measures in the understanding of fatigue, thus providing researchers with a new set of tools with which to better understand the nature and consequences of cognitive fatigue.

Original languageEnglish
Article number579188
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
StatePublished - 15 Jan 2021


  • cognitive fatigue
  • fMRI
  • signal detection theory
  • striatum
  • working memory


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