Directed Attention Fatigue and Restoration

Attention Number 3—Learned Fascination
Wouldn’t it be nice if the things we wanted to pay attention to were the ones we found riveting?

Well, we are somewhat in luck. While it is not built in and automatic like involuntary Fascination, we do have a system called Learned Fascination that helps us do this.

It takes effort over time to acquire this kind of fascination, and then eventually it takes on a life of its own.

Learned Fascination is any kind of engaging hobby, interest, or enthusiasm that captivates us but is not automatically fascinating for everyone.

It may include such activities as stamp collecting, oil painting, reading, embroidery, nuclear physics, writing, or art collecting.

Unlike built-in fascinations involving food, shelter, sex, or animals, our Learned Fascinations take some time and work. One way to tell the difference between the two is that very small children get hooked into automatic fascinations, but not to learned ones. A baby may be intrigued by a bright pretty stamp, but will not stick around long enough to look at the whole collection. However, the same baby can remain fascinated with an animal for a long time.

While learned fascinations are often hobbies, for the lucky few, work itself can become fascinating. This may be more common where there we master an extensive field of knowledge, such as medicine, art, or research. The more extensive our mental maps of a field, the more it can inhibit other thoughts and keep itself going.

Sometimes we develop Learned Fascinations in school, such as when we start to love reading, history, or science. Even when we do learn the subject in school, the fascination may develop more rapidly and powerfully if we work on our own with them outside of school. This is especially the case for learned fascinations with strong innate components, such as hunting, fishing, gardening, dancing, sports, painting, exploring, music, pets– and teaching.

Obviously, even enthusiasms that start at a very basic level can develop into more abstract learned fascinations. I know a number of biologists who started out by catching insects or snakes or frogs as kids.

Each of these Learned Fascinations carries its own juice, and in some cases can carry us along so easily it can rest our directed attention system.

Especially restorative are ones that involve some room for contemplation and mental housekeeping, so that things that keep the mind all fussed up can be packed away in safe places.

What drives Learned Fascination?
Learned Fascination runs on the brain function known as Regional Inhibition.

With regional inhibition, activity in one region shuts down activity in other nearby regions. It’s like a very polite group—when one person speaks, everyone else is automatically quiet.

Learned Fascination can be especially effective if we have developed elaborate, large areas of interest. Someone who knows the history of stamps and stories about their uses will have more powerful learned facinaton than the person who just casually enjoys seeing them on envelopes.

When Directed Attention juice is scarce, this Learned Fascination system, which uses different pathways, can take over and keep us going. We use this when we delve into work as a way of escaping from personal worries. This activity--our period of captivation--can even shut down nearby nagging thoughts, thus giving us extra moments of peace. For a while, it quiets down worries as a side-effect, without using precious bodily fluids.

But regional inhibition also has its limits. We can focus our efforts so long in one area that regional inhibition for the area begins to fail, then we need increasing intervention from Directed Attention. Even if we don’t notice that this crossover has happened, it can wear us out just as much as doing serious number crunching.

Examples of Learned Fascination
Sports statistics
Medieval art
Web surfing
Interior decorating


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.)

Cimprich B. (1993). Development of an intervention to restore attention in cancer patients, Cancer Nurs. 1993 Apr;16(2):83-92.

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© 2006-2008 S. Beadle
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