How ‘Soft Fascination’ Helps Restore Your Tired Brain

Imagine shining a flashlight at a wall in a dark, empty room. If you walk toward the wall, the light will contract. The closer you get to the wall, the smaller and more concentrated the beam of light becomes. By the time the flashlight is an inch from the wall, you’ll see a tight, bright circle of light surrounded by shadow and darkness.

Your attention is a lot like the beam of that flashlight. You can focus it closely and intensely on something, or you can relax it — allowing it to grow soft and diffuse.

A lot of research — much of it recent — has examined the different types and qualities of attention and their associations with mental health and cognitive functioning. This work has revealed that certain types of attention may tire out your brain and contribute to stress, willpower failures, and other problems.

Meanwhile, activities that broaden and soften your attention may reinvigorate your brain and promote psychological and cognitive wellbeing.

Whenever you train your attention on something — an act that cognitive scientists sometimes call “directed attention” — this requires effort. More effort is needed when other things (i.e. distractions) are vying for your attention, or if the thing you’re trying to focus on is boring.

According to a 2016 review from researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School in the U.K, your ability to effortfully focus your attention is finite. Just as an overworked muscle grows weak, overworking your attention seems to wear it out. When that happens, a lot can go wrong.

For one thing, your ability to concentrate plummets. Your willpower and decision-making abilities also take a hit. According to a 2019 study in the journal Occupational Health Science, attention fatigue may also contribute to stress and burnout.

There’s even some work linking attention fatigue to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). “The symptoms of ADHD and ‘attention fatigue’ so closely mirror each other that the Attention Deficit Disorders Evaluation Scale has been used as a measure of attention fatigue,” wrote the authors of a 2004 study in the American Journal of Public Health.

Certain activities seem to reinvigorate the brain in ways that support directed attention and self-regulation.

Experts are still trying to figure out exactly what resource in your brain is drained by effortful directed-attention tasks. They haven’t nailed that down yet. But there’s evidence that directed attention involves frontal and parietal regions of the brain that are also involved in other “cognitive-control” processes. These are the activities that take you out of autopilot and steer you toward goal-directed thoughts and actions — the stuff that isn’t necessarily fun or engaging, but that supports your career, your relationships, and your health.

Distractions, multitasking behaviors, loud noises, bustling urban environments, poor sleep, and many other features of modern life seem to promote attention fatigue. On the other hand, certain activities seem to reinvigorate the brain in ways that support directed attention and self-regulation processes. And one of the most studied and effective of these — as you’ve probably heard — is spending time in nature.

“Getting out in nature seems to relax the brain’s frontal lobes and relieve this attention fatigue,” says Phil Stieg, MD, PhD, chairman of neurological surgery and neurosurgeon-in-chief at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

Exactly how nature does this is tricky. Stieg says that several overlapping mechanisms of benefit are likely at play.

But one that has garnered a lot of expert attention is termed “soft fascination.” The gist is that natural environments are just stimulating enough to gently engage the brain’s attention without unhelpfully concentrating it.

“[W]hat makes an environment restorative is the combination of attracting involuntary attention softly while at the same time limiting the need for directing attention,” wrote the authors of a 2010 study in Perspectives on Psychological Sciences. Nature, they added, seems to hit that sweet spot.

On the other hand, activities that grab and hold our attention too forcefully — books, social interactions, pretty much anything on a screen — entertaining through they may be, are unlikely to recharge our brain’s batteries. “Unlike soft fascination, hard fascination precludes thinking about anything else, thus making it less restorative,” the study authors added.

A lot of the work on soft fascination is folded into a psychological concept known as Attention Restoration Theory, or ART. While a lot of the ART research highlights time in nature as the optimal route to cognitive replenishment, it’s not the only route.

“If you’re on a cell phone for eight hours a day, your attention never gets a rest.”

Mindfulness also promotes attention restoration.

In many ways, it’s a kind of soft-fascination training. Mindfulness attempts to loosen the mind’s preoccupation with self-focused thoughts and judgments while also broadening awareness of your surroundings. This seems a lot like what spending time in nature does automatically, and there’s evidence that moving mindfulness training into natural outdoor settings may augment the practice’s benefits.

Stieg, the New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell neurosurgeon, recently discussed the benefits of nature on his podcast This Is Your Brain. He agrees that mindfulness may be a helpful alternative for those who don’t have access to nature (or the time to get lost in it). He also says that avoiding things that fatigue attention — loud noises, multitasking, technology — could reduce your need to escape to the outdoors.

“If you’re on a cell phone for eight hours a day, your attention never gets a rest,” he says. “I don’t think spending time in nature provides all the answers, but there’s good evidence that it support a longer, healthier, emotionally stable life.”

The bigger takeaway may be that your brain needs idle time to rest and recharge. Deprived of that time and the soft-fascination experiences that support it, your psychological and cognitive health may pay a price.

Markham Heid

By: Markham Heid

Source: How ‘Soft Fascination’ Helps Restore Your Tired Brain | by Markham Heid | Jun, 2021 | Elemental

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