Directed Attention Fatigue and Restoration

Attention Number 2 —Fascination

All this talk is about Directed Attention!
Is there attention that we do not have to direct?

Yes indeed: Fascination, aka Involuntary Attention, the other main attention system, at your service!

1. Fascination: What it is
In addition to our amazing ability to concentrate and focus, humans have a fast, sturdy, overriding kind of attention that goes back a long way--a built-in survival program of our distant ancestors that makes us fascinated by certain things.

This Fascination, also known as Involuntary Attention, is based on an old brain system essential and powerful in its own right. And once we get it activated, it can give our Directed Attention system a nice chance to rest.

Although modern humans often need to do things like focus on taxes, write a letter to the editor, proofread a term paper, and ignore distractions while we do it, too much concentration can be a dangerous habit when there are bears or bandits around.

For millennia, our default has been to pay attention to the bears and bandits. Even now, when we are concentrating, we have an automatic override that forces us, when necessary, to QUIT concentrating on our modern concerns and notice what is going on in the world.

This happens with no effort on our part. It is automatic, involuntary, and hardwired to alert us to specific survival-related things. Fascination works even when we are infants—babies attend to such survival related things as food, people, and animals, hot emotions, moving water, noise, and activity.

In addition, Fascination is one of the more bomb-proof brain activities we have going. Some think that Fascination does not wear out. (31Aug01 SESAME, Kaplan) Well, hardly ever. (31Aug01 SESAME, Cimprich) We probably get so tired we go to sleep before our fascination runs down.

And this is a good thing! Being able to pay attention to dangers and pleasures is essential for all creatures. We find such things as fire, blood, sex, food, animals, all the basics of our existence, to be fascinating, riveting, captivating. And even those with a walloping deficit of attention, either permanent or temporary, still have Fascination to fall back on.

Violence is something that automatically grabs our attention. So do beautiful or dangerous places, and sex, and monsters. We are built to pay attention to these inherently interesting things. And they are often linked to strong emotions, such as pleasure and fear, just to make sure we notice!

Ever wondered why people stare at accidents and other creepy things?

Bad things as well as good are important to our survival. It is smart for creatures in a tricky world to pay very close attention to what goes wrong. Bears are just as important to our existence as honeycombs— in fact, more so at certain times.

So we are built to notice food, but also to notice predators—who might regard US as food! And not just notice things—to focus on them and learn about them, so we will have some clues for next time—or for the next move of that carnivore.

It may seem sick to be drawn to horrors—we repeatedly hear people bemoaning “gawkers” at traffic accidents. But such observing can be smart in the long run. As long as don't get so captivated we get too close, or get run over by something coming the other way!

Fortunately, all of us, even people with severe ADHD symptoms, have this basic automatic involuntary attention system to fall back on. The machinery is tucked safely deep in our brains in the cingulate cortex and other areas.

In fact, for animals, human infants, and sometimes even adults, Fascination may be the main attention system operating. In fact, it can work amazingly well. After all, it was our basic system for zillions of years. It offers a way of interacting that is both fast and "instinctive." The world provides a stimulus, we respond. And in the right environment, it can work almost seamlessly.

2. Wrapped up in chains-- the hazards of Fascination
OK, so why should we bother with effortful concentration at all if this Fascination stuff is so easy and effective?

For one thing, being tied to the chain of stimulus and response has its limits.

When Fascination is in control, we respond to what's happening when it happens. Scary stories, parties, video games and storms are all fascinating in this sense. The gaudier, louder, nastier something is, the more our involuntary Fascination responds. The more basic and "primitive" it is, the more we get trapped in its spell.
We tend to sell out to the flashiest bidder.

Advertisers, con men, entertainers, news programmers and politicians know the power of such survival-related stimuli as sex, violence, mysteries, fears and danger, and how easy it is to trap or mislead people by using Fascination. They do not hesitate to tap into our Involuntary Attention for their own purposes. The modern advertising industry is based on using our built-in survival mechanisms to sell soap.

When we are barraged with such carefully shaped Fascination-based propaganda, our ability to think clearly and make sensible decisions plummets.

But human cultures also provide us with warnings and techniques to resist the flashy and vulgar, our baser instincts, and bread and circuses It is no accident that many important prayers are of the form, “Lead us not into temptation.”

In order to resist such alien invasions, to focus on what we ourselves decide is important, and make our own plans despite the siren song of things inherently fascinating, it is important to be able to call upon Directed Attention.

Directed Attention allows us to step back, consider, make alternate plans, resist, refocus, put the current razzmatazz up against our values and goals, and in general advance from a rigid chain of stimulus and response into a more decision-based frame of reference.

Soft Fascination
So far we have mostly talked about the really hard Fascination, the kind that grabs our attention and won’t let go. But there is another more subtle aspect of Fascination, known as Soft Fascination. Instead of being captivated by large, loud, survival-related things, our attention can be gently attracted without dominating us.

Soft Fascination is the quieter kind of Involuntary Attention.

Our attention can be gently led by small, often rhythmic, natural events. Things such as light flickering through leaves, the sound of surf, rocking in a rocking chair, a ticking clock, watching fish in a fish tank, or people passing by. Petting a dog. Playing with kids. Gardening. Puttering. Walking in the woods or through a park.

This kind of fascination is often soothing and pleasant, and we can drift off in it and rest our directed attention in the process. Where I live, many people go down to the lake for lunch, and watch the waves and clouds and birds. Others enjoy having lunch downtown where they can watch the people walking by. Both are examples of Soft Fascination.

Csikszentmihaly, Mihaly, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Kandel Eric R, (1991) Principles of Neural Science, 3rd ed, New York, Elsevier

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.)


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©2006-2008 S. Beadle
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