Directed Attention Fatigue and Restoration

Introducing 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 distractions, or 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.

2. Fascination
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 reason.

Fascination is built-in automatic, ancient, basic and powerful brain machinery that makes us notice when we see or hear or touch or smell something 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 keeps us 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 the future.

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 here is Learned Fascination. In this case, 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, our work.

Learned Fascination is partially based on the brain process known as regional inhibition.

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 of peace.

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 getting bored.

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 of stamps.

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 related processes.


Kaplan, S. (2001) Meditation, Restoration, and the Management of Mental Fatigue, Environment and Behavior; Thousand Oaks; Jul 2001; Volume: 33, Issue: 4

Posner, M.I. (1999). Localizing cognitive operations. Brain Research Bulletin. 50/5-6 413


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© 2006-2008 S. Beadle
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