Directed Attention Fatigue and Restoration

Environmental factors in attention
We are familiar with the idea that other people can affect our mental condition.

And we know that physical interaction with the environment can cause physical fatigue.

But how can noise or driving or watching TV give you mental fatigue? And even more mysterious, how can watching the surf, having a view of trees out your window, or playing with a kitten, how can these relieve mental fatigue in your head?

For the answers we go to a new kind of psychology that is developing rapidly, the field of Environmental Psychology.

Pioneered by Stephen and Rachel Kaplan, it deals with how environmental factors, sometimes factors that are almost unnoticeable, affect our minds.

In a way, Environmental Psychology was born of necessity in the modern world.

Medicine has always been with us. People have always gotten sick and injured, and we have tried to help.

Individual and social psychology in some form has been around to a lesser but still important degree—we have always had counselors and people who were interested in understanding groups.

But it was not until we began spending the majority of our time in artificial, constructed environments that Environmental Psychology really started to matter. Remember, we had a long long looooong time to get used to living in the woods or savannahs. Our brains and sensory systems are really built for that. And then we had millennia to get used to living in villages. Even small cities have been around for a few thousand years old, and people have adapted, somewhat, to them.

But modern megalopolises are very new, providing us with skyscrapers and surrounding suburbs, as well as indoor features, which contain many elements to which we are not adapted.

Some of these show up in funny ways. Many of us know of certain subdivisions where we repeatedly get turned around or lost in the winding streets. We may have had trouble finding a particular office or apartment in a building if we forget the room number. And on a micro-environmental level, many of us have had trouble accomplishing what we intended with a VCR or household appliances.

When the consequences increase, the issues can be less amusing. Long, straight, featureless freeways can put people into a highway trance, or put them to sleep. People with memory problems can get thoroughly lost in the uniform corridors of a hospital or nursing home. Badly designed ballots can mean that an unwanted candidate wins. Badly designed cockpits can actually increase the incidence of airline crashes.

When we consider that the physical environment, both natural and built, is everywhere, all the time, and is what we constantly sense and interact with on a whole variety of levels, in all our senses, we begin to see how it could have a significant impact on our thoughts and emotions.

It can be especially tricky when environmental effects are small and subtle and we often don’t notice them directly. Instead, we may just feel better in certain places or situations, or worse in others. We dismiss it as a mood, or think that we are sick, or that some “personality trait” that is making us feel a certain way—until we go someplace else and consistently feel or perform quite differently. Often, something goes wrong and continues to go wrong before we start testing to find what the difficulty is. Extreme cases are sometimes needed to make things clear.

The things you will see here are some examples worked out after careful study by researchers in Environmental Psychology.

The pathways are generally easy to understand:
• An environmental event occurs, such a noise.
• It becomes an input via our sensory receptors, such as the nerves in our ears.
• Various parts of our nervous system and brain convert and process this input.
• Which then becomes a particular psychological effect.

A large sensory impact can be obvious—when we are in the vicinity of a loud irritating sound, it seems to go right into our brain and block out everything else. But there can be much more subtle effects, and it is these which are the object of much current study.

But it’s the details that are tricky--and fascinating.

Like the effect of vitamins and toxins on our bodies, even small environmental effects can have mental big impacts

Also, our brains are never passive. Even seeing a simple image takes work—as we know from people who have been born blind, have had the damage repaired, then still need to learn how to see. Different kinds of cells in our brains handle things like straight lines, movement, colors. So the information has to be funneled to the proper cells. Our simplest sensory processing is quite an accomplishment.

After the input is processed on a basic level, it goes to our centers specialized for making associations, predictions, expectations, and preferences. Even fairly simple mental events that seem to happen almost instantly take a lot of work. It is an unimaginably complex and marvelous system. This realm of cognition is integrated with the emotion circuits in our heads, and with motor circuits, so we can move in response to a stimulus—and decide when not to move.

Fortunately, we are not stuck in just a one-way stimulus-response. We have a lot of gray-matter that intervenes between a stimulus and what we decide to do about it.

Our thoughts can even feed back to the basic sensory level—for example, we are more likely to see something when we are looking for it, as anyone who has eagerly watched for something can tell you.

We can also get false-positives. We generally believe what we see—but sometimes we see what we believe—even when it isn’t there!

One of the most amazing parts of our brain machinery helps us deal with all this, with the “blooming buzzing confusion “ of the world, as William James said. This is our attention system. Some things automatically grab our attention—noise, blood, somebody cute. This important—it is a quick way for us to know what matters and what we can ignore.

However, sometimes we have to do things that are not fascinating at all, such as cleaning the sink or doing certain homework. In order to resist fascinating things long enough to get something else done, we have our Directed Attention system, which we talk so much about here.

This allows us to compare, plan, consider, or focus on one aspect of the situation, such as figuring out how to get a date with that cute somebody. Or it lets us focus on something completely different, such as writing the script for a comedy program. It can help us avoid deception—or create it. It gives us the space to imagine and to plan.

Directed Attention can fatigue even faster than usual when we have to work especially hard to decipher the world, to interact the right way, or when we have to refrain from very compelling or automatic actions.

Some things interfere with mental processing so much that they almost always cause Attention Fatigue. These include:

•loud and unpredictable noise
•too much chaos
•too much uncertainly
•things requiring an unusual degree of focus
•or an unusual amount of restraint
•Places that are confusing can wear us down fast.
•So will simply doing too much. We just drive the machinery into the ground.

On the other side of the circuit, we will have difficulties if the processing machinery is in trouble:

•if our mental machinery is damaged by illness
•or we do not get enough sleep, which is necessary to keep attention functioning.

This complex and constant interaction with the environment makes our lives interesting, but takes enormous work. And scientists are just beginning to explore this intriguing and essential area.

Kaplan, S. (1978). Attention and fascination: The search for cognitive clarity. In S. Kaplan & R. Kaplan (Eds.), Humanscape: Environments For People. Belmont, CA: Duxbury. (Republished by Ann Arbor, MI: Ulrich's, 1982.)

Lang, S. 2002. Green spaces boost children's attention. (Brief Reports: Design and Environmental Analysis).(Brief Article): An article from: Human Ecology, Author: , Cornell University, Human Ecology, Volume: 30 Issue: 1 Page: 23(1), March 1, 2002

Mary Ann Stark, M. A. (2003). Restoring Attention in Pregnancy:The Natural Environment, Clinical Nursing Research, Vol. 12, No. 3, 246-265


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