I'm not sure this is what happens here, but it is established that depletion of dopamine from, say, cocaine, leads one to not experience the next situation as particularly exciting.TLP, you the man! (Or perhaps, you the woman! as the case may be.)
It also happens to neurons in a different manner, such that you can't fire the neuron again until after a time when the voltage resets (called refractory period.)
I followed up on this with a little more research about the biochemistry of mental exhaustion. It echoed what my friend at the conference had suggested and TLP confirmed, you basically run out of fuel in your head. Mind Sports Nutrition is a commercial website offering supplements of unknown quality. I'm hedging because all I'm taking from their site is their white paper on norepinephrine and I don't know anything at all about their products.
As physical and mental stress increases, it has been shown that depletion of norepinephrine occurs in the brain. When depleted levels of this neurotransmitter occurs, the individual will possess the inability to think clearly and feel mentally exhausted.I might spend a little more time looking into this, but in essence, it appears that your brain produces norepinephrine and dopamine at a given rate and when you're thinking hard, you're using it faster than you create it. Eventually, you run low and the neurons won't fire as fast. That would be the source of the feelings of mental exhaustion.
I would guess that mental idleness would be a way of rebuilding stores of the stuff. Now you could read the New York Times or watch C-SPAN as a way of turning your brain off, but I wouldn't recommend it. There is too great a chance for adult onset mental retardation with both of those. Instead, meditation might do the trick.
Maybe that's what is happening to people that claim that meditation gives them great mental energy when they're done. What they're doing is putting their brains in neutral and giving them a chance to rebuild their stores of norepinephrine and dopamine. Hmmm.
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