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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Escape!

Acadia National Park, Maine (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

Have you found yourself seeking to escape the stress, noise and pollution of your everyday environment, if only for a few minutes? Places that are available to escape to are becoming harder to find as the world’s population continues to increase; combined with the fact that more than 50% of the world’s population now lives in an urban environment.

Kaplan & Kaplan (1989) described escape as “an absence of some aspect of life that is ordinarily present, and presumably not always preferred” (p. 183). They describe three types of escape: 1) Escaping distraction; 2) escaping work; 3) escaping mental effort.

Escaping distraction can be seeking relief from information overload. Modern urban living often provides constant demands on attention from cell phones, email, traffic, everyone needing something, now! These constant demands on attention, fatigue directed attention capacities. One of the best ways to heal the ability to focus attention is to spend time in nature, which has few demands to focus on.

Escaping work can involve getting away to a place that is removed from all reminders of the job. Spending time hiking in a wilderness environment, far from the pressures of the job, may offer time to gain a fresh perspective on issues in the workplace. Often this provides opportunities to reflect on past work and life experiences.

Another type of escape that Kaplan et al. describe is from mental effort. The opportunity to rest the mind and truly relax is a primary intention many of us have when planning vacations.

Kaplan et al. point out that what one escapes to may be more important than what one is escaping from. With increased urbanization, another form of escape may be evolving: escape from pollution. Pollution can be in the form noise, smog, or more direct environmental pollution to the land. With more than 79% of the U.S. population now living in urban environments, exposure to these types of pollution are proliferating. Combined with this, many people have now become disconnected to nature because they are relying more on technology and live in urban settings that have few places to enjoy nature. As a result, fewer people now understand the healing benefits that time in nature offers. Escaping to the living room to watch TV non-stop, or playing video games, does not offer the same restorative benefit.

Venturing out to spend time in nature may take more effort than lounging at home in front of the TV, or exercising using the Wi, but the psychological restoration, and fitness benefits offered by nature are worth the investment.

The symptoms of a society that is experiencing information overload and failing to take time for restoration are everywhere: the number of auto accidents that are a result of people texting, or talking on a cell phone; obesity that is a result, in part, of having too many demands on time, and too few opportunities to exercise; and the inability to concentrate because there are so many things to focus on.

There is a prescription for this that has no known side effects: spending time in nature. The use of nature for human resource development in organizations offers a new and creative approach to helping employees cope with the stress of work.

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

The Restorative Benefits of Hiking and its Relationship to Job Satisfaction

Hiker Bill Boydston on the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

The November/December Issue of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy magazine Journeys includes an article in which I review the results of the study I completed earlier this year for my dissertation at North Carolina State University on the restorative benefits of hiking in wilderness solitude and its relationship to job satisfaction.

Read the article via this link (scroll to page 3):   http://www.appalachiantrail.org/docs/atj/2011/04/15/atj-november-december-2010.pdf

The Importance of Solitude

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William Deresiewicz penned an excellent article last year in the Chronicle of Higher Education about “the end of solitude”  (http://chronicle.com/article/The-End-of-Solitude/3708).

Experiencing solitude, ideally in nature, is a wonderful way to rest  attention capacities, and reflect on life. Stephen and Rachel Kaplan (1989), faculty at the University of Michigan,  explain the importance of attention restoration that time in nature provides. They describe how the resting of voluntary, or directed attention (attention that requires effort to stay focused) is possible when we are in natural environments that offer “soft fascination” such as bird songs, waterfalls, views of sunsets and the sound of leaves rustling in the wind. Environments that offer soft fascination allow directed attention to rest, and involuntary attention to become active. Involuntary attention does not require effort. This relaxing of the mind can have many psychological benefits, and provides opportunities for reflection.

Those of us who spend time in nature can help to re-introduce a culture that has become disconnected from it. Technology and the pace of urban life now consume many people who are addicted to instant access to information and constant connectivity. We can help others understand that there is value in  nature, that it  provides unique opportunities to experience solitude, and to reflect.

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