the Big Three of Attention
When we talk about attention, what it is and how it works, the first
thing to know is that attention is not unitary. It involves several,
perhaps many, processes that let us focus, become captivated, and change
our focus, among other things.
We will be discussing three main kinds of attention: Directed Attention,
Fascination, and Learned Fascination, as well as the interesting and
strange ways they interact.
1. Directed Attention
Directed or effortful attention, also
known as executive attention, is the kind we use to concentrate on
something difficult, to stay with a task, to ignore
return to a task when we get distracted. When it is working well, it
lets us imagine, then focus enough to build that imagination into structures
and plans, and stay with them long enough to mentally test them out.
Because of it, we can sacrifice current temptations for future dreams.
It is also called Executive Attention in many research papers.
Directed Attention runs on a wide, complex brain system, from the prefrontal
cortex, through the anterior cingulate gyrus in the limbic system, down
to the basal ganglia in the brainstem.
From top to bottom and back to
front, and all around the town, basically.
We have to struggle and practice to learn to use Directed Attention.
If things go well, much of learning to use it is done in childhood.
It takes work to use Directed Attention, and the system is more fragile
than other kinds of attention, and tends to fatigue easily.
When we talk about Attention Fatigue or mental fatigue, Directed Attention
is the kind of attention that becomes fatigued.
If Directed Attention is the ability to concentrate despite distractions,
then Fascination is what keeps us riveted by something, whether we want
to be or not. It is officially called Involuntary Attention for this
Fascination is built-in automatic, ancient, basic and powerful brain
machinery that makes us notice when we see or hear or touch or smell
naturally interesting, dangerous or attractive. When a tiger roars nearby,
when we walk past a bakery window that’s emitting delicious smells,
when an attractive someone smiles at us, or when we see a person hurt
and bleeding, these will almost always capture our attention, whether
we want them to or not. These hook in our involuntary automatic Fascination
system, which is hard-wired.
We can ignore most things, with enough work, but those that are inherently
fascinating and survival-related are the hardest to ignore. Fascination
glued to the horror movie screen, or listening to a baby crying, or makes
us unable to look away from the scene of an accident.
Even little kids have this system. It keeps us safe. It forces us to
focus on and hopefully learn from dangerous situations--or at least not
ignore them. Animals have it too--they focus on fights and blood and
sex and food just like we do.
Where humans differ is that we are also fascinated by cognition-related
things such as stories, puzzles, mysteries, planning, and predicting
It is good that we are fascinated by such things, since we
have to make our livings by our wits, rather than with our big claws
or great speed.
And fascination has an energizer bunny aspect—it keeps going and
going and going. Unlike Directed Attention, which wears out rather quickly.
In fact, there is discussion as to whether Fascination, which is so basic
and old and powerful, fatigues at all. Given that most things biological
do fatigue, one would suspect that this does also, but the answers are
not yet in.
One important virtue of Fascination is that when we are primarily using
it, our Directed Attention system can rest.
3. Learned Fascination
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could be riveted by things we actually
want to pay attention to, even things that are not survival related?
As it turns out, we can.
The third aspect of attention we will discuss
we can also become immersed, but it is about things that are not directly
survival-related, or that most of us would not find naturally fascinating.
Learned Fascination, while it has a lot of juice, is about things we
have to spend some effort learning before they really start to click—stamp
collecting, for example, or gourmet cooking, baseball statistics, scrap
booking, theoretical physics. These can be hobbies, or, if we our lucky,
Learned Fascination is partially based on the brain process known as
With regional inhibition, activity in one region shuts down activity
in other nearby regions. It’s as if, when you turned on the lights
in one room, there was a circuit that turned off the lights in nearby
rooms to save energy. This activity keeps us busy and focused, can quell
nearby nagging thoughts, and give our Directed Attention a few moments
The more interrelated details we have in a particular learned fascination—such
as the name of the stamps, their country, the story of the images, their
worth, and images of a large number of different stamps—the more
effective the Learned Fascination is. It’s like having a house
with enough rooms so you can keep moving around in it a long time without
While using Learned Fascination can provide a nice break for our Directed
Attention, we do have to be careful, because although we may get lost
in the flow of Learned Fascination, we may still actually be using
Directed Attention too, such as when we plan out how to move whole
sets of album pages,
do mental calculations, or try to remember where we put that packet
Because distraction and confusion
are not states that make us effective and let us act clearly, attentional
focus feels good to us. With all of these kinds of attention, we experience
built-in pleasure when we are using them, when they are working well
and are not in conflict. Fascination, Learned fascination, and Directed
Attention are all extremely useful to us--but they can cause confusion
when we think of them as one unified thing, rather than several different
S. (2001) Meditation, Restoration, and the Management of Mental Fatigue,
Environment and Behavior; Thousand Oaks; Jul 2001; Volume: 33, Issue:
Posner, M.I. (1999). Localizing cognitive operations. Brain Research
Bulletin. 50/5-6 413