Soft Fascination Allows The Mind To Wander in a Noisy, Urban World

By Dr. Mark A. Ellison

Many people now experience physical and psychological health issues related to the stress, fatigue and pollution associated with living and working in urban environments. In a previous post I explored the concept of escaping these environments to spend time in more restorative natural environments. A key component of natural environments that encourages restoration is the presence of fascinating stimuli (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). Something that is fascinating is a stimulus that initiates the use of involuntary attention, or attention that requires no effort.  The presence of fascinating components of the environment are important because they attract us, and keep us from becoming bored, while allowing functioning without the use of directed, or voluntary attention. Fascinating components of a natural environment include bird songs; the sound of wind blowing through the trees; clouds; a sunrise or sunset; or a flowing stream or river.

White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

These elements are not random, but are all connected to the natural environment, thus supporting one another, and capturing attention. Fascination experienced in nature is referred to as soft fascination (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). This is in contrast to hard fascination (e.g. sporting events, watching TV, etc) that demand full attention, not allowing for other thinking, including reflection. Environments that encourage soft fascination have

involuntary attention aspects that are of a mild strength while also having an aesthetic component. “Soft fascination may be a mixture of fascination and pleasure such that any lack of clarity an individual may be experiencing is not necessarily blotted out by distraction, but rendered substantially less painful” (Kaplan & Kaplan, p. 192). This allows the individuals to experience fascinating environment while also allowing for the exploration of other thoughts, as well as reflection. This allows the mind to wander, and presents opportunities to make mental connections to what previously had been disconnected ideas or material. Experiencing environments that

Fire pink (Silene virginica) wildflower in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

Fire pink (Silene virginica) wildflower in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

encourage soft fascination while hiking provides opportunities to think through situations and make decisions; to reflect on prior experiences and make sense of them; and to develop ideas that can be implemented in the workplace or in personal life. Making time to let your mind wander is time well invested.

Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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Attention Restoration Offers Many Health Benefits

The attention restoration benefits of spending time in nature have been documented in a number of studies (Berto, 2005; Berman et al., 2008; Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). William James (1892) described two types of attention: voluntary and involuntary. Attention that demands effort, or is forced because it lacks interest is called voluntary or directed. Voluntary attention is what is used when we are at work and constantly have interruptions, phone calls, and noise demanding attention. Involuntary attention is passive, reflexive and requires no effort or will when in an attentive state (Kaplan, 1978). Spending time in nature allows involuntary attention to be used. Utilizing involuntary attention rests voluntary (directed ) attention, helping  it to heal from the fatigue caused by constant demands on attention experienced in urban and work environments.

An article published in 2010 by Kaplan & Berman looks at how directed attention is a common resource for executive functioning and self regulation. The authors recognize the need for additional research on the health benefits of attention restoration.  Read the article at http://cartalk.com/ddc/wp-content/uploads/Perspectives-on-Psychological-Science-2010-Kaplan-43-57.pdf

This article is another indication that there are possible benefits from spending time in nature that impact many aspects of functioning and performance. Indeed, additional research is needed to learn more about how nature benefits human health.

Berman, M, Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008) The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19, 1207-1212.

Berto, R. (2005). Exposure to restorative environments helps restore attention capacity. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 25, 249-259.

James, W. (1892). Psychology: The briefer course. New York: Holt.

Kaplan, S. (1978). Attention and fascination: The search for cognitive clarity. Humanscape: environments for people.

Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.