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