Working solo

Relieving attention fatigue

By Richard Coyne, Jenny Roe, Peter Aspinall and Panos Mavros

Background

To concentrate on a task you need to block out distractions. In fact that’s what it means to concentrate – to inhibit other instinctual inclinations. Once that blocking function gets worn down by fatigue you are more likely to act on impulse, to run away if something challenges you too much, to take unnecessary risks, to become irritable, and to get distracted from your task by things that are more engaging but less challenging, such as video games, television programmes, or random images on the Internet. These are symptoms of attention fatigue.

Attention fatigue is useful. If you kept on with challenging tasks, no matter how important, without a break, then you would be less likely to notice what’s going on around you. You’d be like the dysfunctional inventor, scientist, writer or student cramming for an exam who has to be dragged from the laboratory or study desk in order to wash, eat and socialise.

How can you restore your ability to concentrate on the important task at hand? Sleep is one approach, but attention fatigue can disrupt it and can lead to irregular sleep patterns and sleepless nights. The solution seems to reside in taking a rest from direct concentration and instead redirecting one’s concentration to things that don’t require as much effort, i.e. things we find ‘naturally fascinating’ that command our attention effortlessly.

There are many candidates for recuperative attention, depending on your inclinations: reading a novel with a suspense element, checking up on whether an email or post has arrived, buying lottery tickets and following the results. Most people are fascinated by animals, so watching YouTube cat videos might do it, or even playing with a real pet.

Most people are drawn to extremes in physical appearance and circumstances. So watching car racing, cartoons and soaps, reading gossip columns, and experiencing unusual architecture may fit the bill. Whether through biological, social or cultural attunement these are sources of fascination for many. They easily arrest and hold our concentration, and offer some restorative benefits, though exaggeration in its own right can have other disturbing effects, a bit like the effects of watching a horror film or movie.

But there’s another kind of fascination that maintains our ability to concentrate, willingly, with little effort, and more effectively. This is soft fascination, as proposed by the psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1989; Kaplan, 1995). Soft fascination is best for recuperation as it provides opportunities for reflection, is non-taxing, and deals less with exaggeration and its attendant disturbances.

recipe15-01

Ingredients

  • A tired mind
  • An outdoor space
  • Another world (fictional or otherwise) to retreat to
  • Willingness to leave your smartphone behind

Method

  1. Seek out the natural environment. The natural environment – the outdoors, with plants, sweeping vistas, water, and wildlife, or even just a vegetable garden or a row of indoor plants – is ideal for soft fascination. Kaplan says, “Nature is certainly well-endowed with fascinating objects, as well as offering many processes that people find engrossing” (Kaplan, 1995, p.174). There are clouds, sunsets, leaves rustling in the breeze, and attending to these patterns doesn’t take much effort. We conducted a study using mobile electroencephalography (EEG) as a method of recording and analysing the emotional experience of people walking in three types of urban environment including parkland (Mavros et al., 2012; Aspinall et al., 2013). Our analysis of the data shows evidence of lower frustration, engagement and arousal, and higher meditation when moving into the green space zone, and higher engagement when moving out of it. We human beings have an instinctual inclination towards outdoor activities – as predators, nomads, domesticators, observers, and survivors. Most of us relate well to the countryside. However, the restorative environment should be compatible and meaningful to you, so adapt this as you see fit.
  2. Get away from it all. Spend time in a different environment to the one you are working in. This helps rest your concentration. It’s obviously good to get away to the countryside if you can, but Kaplan (1995) suggests that this restorative capability can be accomplished by experiencing an old environment in a new and different way, or even looking physically in a different direction from time to time. Being away involves a conceptual shift. Think of this as entering into an alien environment, or seeing the familiar as alien in some way, a bit like being a tourist.
  3. Find a whole other world. The restorative environment needs to provide a ‘whole other world’. Kaplan says, “It must provide enough to see, experience, and think about so that it takes up a substantial portion of the available room in one’s head” (p.173). Places that evoke memories, stories and histories, including natural environments, provide this. So looking at images at random on the Internet would probably not fit the bill. There’s no structure, nothing to be probed in depth as offered up by the natural world.
  4. Consider digital recuperation carefully. Does the ubiquity of digital media help or hinder this aspect of restorative outdoor environments? Some people are certainly suspicious of smartphones and other digital technologies, and think they provide a barrier between us and the restorative benefits of the outdoors. According to a book on nature and health (Selhub and Logan, 2012), “instead of stroking the keyboard or rubbing the belly of your smartphone screen, you – and the world – will be better served by petting your dog” (p.138), and “strolling through a park while engaging with a smartphone screen may cause a vitamin G deficiency” (p.216) where vitamin G is vitamin B2 or the ‘green’ vitamin. Larry Rosen presents a similar view: “If you are going to use nature as a restorative cure for technologically-induced brain overload, it is best to remove all technology from the scene” (Rosen, 2012, p.206).

Note

This recipe incorporates some material from http://richardcoyne.com/2013/04/06/soft-fascination which acknowledges Kaplan (1995).

BITE: Recipes for Remarkable Research is available in paperback, hardback and as Open Access from:

Sense Publishers: Paperback | Hardcover | Free Open Access
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