Exploring The Role Of Hard and Soft Fascination

Phone interviews are an important part of a doctor’s job, and I had four scheduled last Wednesday afternoon, one after the other, with no breaks in between. I had an epic, involuntary space-out in the middle of the last call, as a very nice gastroenterologist was telling me about immune cytokines. “Are you still there?” the poor guy had to ask. It was embarrassing, and I apologised, but I still struggled to pay attention to what he was saying after that. My concentration had worn thin after nearly three hours on the phone carefully listening, taking detailed notes, and asking pertinent questions. We all use the phrase “pay attention,” but few of us think about how much these payments cost us.

Researchers have turned their attention to the various ways the human mind can attend to the world and to what happens when we overtax the brain’s attentional systems as the demands on our attention have increased in recent decades (thanks, in large part, to mobile media technologies). “Attention is a limited resource that, like a muscle, can fatigue with use,” says Avik Basu, PhD, an environmental psychologist at the University of Michigan. Basu is interested in “the role environments play in depleting and restoring our capacity to pay attention, as well as designing environments that simultaneously enhance individual and communal well-being,” according to his academic bio.

Attention and happiness may appear to have little in common, at least not directly. However, Basu and others working in the field of attention-restoration theory have discovered that temporarily depleting one’s attention can lead to distractibility, impulsivity, irritability, and mental fatigue. ‘Our brains are simply not designed to deal with the rates, frequencies, and magnitudes of the stimuli we’re receiving,’ says one expert. Worryingly, there is mounting evidence that the brain’s attentional system is intimately linked to the stress and arousal systems. Much remains to be determined, but it appears increasingly likely that when one’s attention is overworked and under-rested on a regular basis, the result is chronic stress and sympathetic nervous system activation, both of which are major risk factors for everything from anxiety, depression to heart disease & autoimmune disease

“Modern environments present a constant stream of stimuli that demand our full bandwidth of attention,” says Basu. “One diagnosis for many of today’s problems is that our brains are simply not designed to handle the rates, frequencies, and magnitudes of the stimuli we’re receiving.” Much of his research has focused on how natural environments (forests, parks, etc.) can restore attention and thus mitigate all of these potential issues. He claims that natural environments can do this for us because they provide a break for our directed-attention system. “So the directed-attention system is what we use to pay attention to a conversation or to watch something on Netflix activities that don’t leave much room for reflection or internal conflict resolution.”

These are also referred to as “hard fascinations.” “[T]elevision, social media, and other popular modes of escape and ‘chilling out,’ according to Basu’s research, are emblematic of hard fascination.” These are all enjoyable and entertaining, but they don’t provide much of a break for the brain’s directed-attention system. ‘Anything that allows your mind to wander or allows you to not pay close attention could be restorative.’ He claims that another type of attention must be brought online in order to relieve and restore that system. “The other type is known as the involuntary attention system, and it is here that soft fascination comes into play,” he explains.

Soft fascinations, as opposed to hard fascinations, allow your attention to broaden and roam without becoming overly focused on anything. “Classic examples of soft fascination include wind blowing through leaves or ripples of water travelling across a pond,” Baku says. “These give you plenty of room for thought.” Our brains evolved in natural environments, he claims, so it stands to reason that our attentional systems would seek more relief and restoration more balance in those settings.

But you don’t have to go for a walk in the woods to give your brain a break. “Anything that allows your mind to wander or allows you to not pay close attention could be restorative,” he says. Soft fascination can be defined as doing dishes, folding laundry, gardening, colouring, eating, going for a walk, staring out a window at nothing in particular… Baku prefers to encourage people to experiment on their own rather than give them rigid advice on how to incorporate periods of soft fascination into their lives. He suggests noting times when your focus feels fatigued; perhaps you’re having difficulty concentrating while also feeling energised and irritable. That is when you encounter those moments, it’s a sign that you attention needs more respite.

Remember that hard and soft forms of fascination most likely exist on a spectrum. Music may be less “hard” to listen to than a podcast or news programme. Similarly, watching a baseball game on TV may require less attention than watching an action-packed show. None of this used to matter because life was full of boring, uninteresting moments. However, just as the modern food environment deprives your gut of healthy breaks from food and digestion, the modern media environment is designed to deprive your attention of time to rest and rejuvenate. In either case, you may have to pay for your losses with your health.

Hi, I’m Garima and I write about life experiences. I have several books available on Amazon. Check them out today! Any purchases or KDP reads will be greatly appreciated. If you like my books, do leave a review. Here’s my author page on Amazon – https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B0BQDZXYNV


5 Comments Add yours

  1. Chily Kim says:

    Excuse me sorry, but do you mind if you went to my site and see if it is there any repeated posts because i cant delete them … sorry

    Liked by 1 person

    1. GS says:

      I don’t see any repeated post.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Chily Kim says:

    Ok thank you so much I fixed the problem… thank you again ⚘⚘

    Liked by 1 person

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