Number 2 —Fascination
All this talk is about Directed Attention! Is
there attention that we do not have to direct?
Yes indeed: Fascination,
aka Involuntary Attention, the other main attention system, at your
1. Fascination: What it is
In addition to our amazing ability to concentrate and focus, humans
have a fast, sturdy, overriding kind of attention that goes back
a long way--a
built-in survival program of our distant ancestors that makes us fascinated
by certain things.
This Fascination, also known as Involuntary Attention, is based on an
old brain system essential and powerful in its own right. And once we
get it activated, it can give our Directed Attention system a nice chance
Although modern humans often need to do things like focus on taxes,
write a letter to the editor, proofread a term paper, and ignore distractions
while we do it, too much concentration can be a dangerous habit when
there are bears or bandits around.
For millennia, our default has been to pay attention to the bears and
bandits. Even now, when we are concentrating, we have an automatic override
that forces us, when necessary, to QUIT concentrating on our modern concerns
and notice what is going on in the world.
This happens with no effort on our part. It is automatic, involuntary,
and hardwired to alert us to specific survival-related things. Fascination
works even when we are infants—babies attend to such survival related
things as food, people, and animals, hot emotions, moving water, noise,
In addition, Fascination is one of the more bomb-proof brain activities
we have going. Some think that Fascination does not wear out. (31Aug01
SESAME, Kaplan) Well, hardly ever. (31Aug01 SESAME, Cimprich) We probably
we go to sleep before our fascination runs down.
And this is a good thing! Being able to pay attention to dangers
and pleasures is essential for all creatures. We find such
as fire, blood, sex, food, animals, all the basics of our existence,
to be fascinating, riveting, captivating. And even those with a walloping
deficit of attention, either permanent or temporary, still have Fascination
to fall back on.
Violence is something that automatically grabs our attention. So do beautiful
or dangerous places, and sex, and monsters. We are built to pay attention
to these inherently interesting things. And they are often linked to
strong emotions, such as pleasure and fear, just to make sure we notice!
Ever wondered why people stare at accidents and other creepy things?
Bad things as well as good are important to our survival. It is smart
for creatures in a tricky world to pay very close attention to what goes
wrong. Bears are just as important to our existence as honeycombs— in
fact, more so at certain times.
So we are built to notice food, but also to notice predators—who
might regard US as food! And not just notice things—to focus on
them and learn about them, so we will have some clues for next time—or
for the next move of that carnivore.
It may seem sick to be drawn to horrors—we repeatedly hear people
bemoaning “gawkers” at traffic accidents.
But such observing can be smart in the long run. As long as don't get
we get too close, or get run over by something coming the other way!
all of us, even people with severe ADHD symptoms, have this basic automatic
involuntary attention system to fall back on. The machinery is tucked
safely deep in our brains in the cingulate cortex and other areas.
In fact, for animals, human infants, and sometimes even adults, Fascination
may be the main attention system operating. In fact, it can work amazingly
well. After all, it was our basic system for zillions of years. It offers
is both fast and "instinctive." The
world provides a stimulus, we respond. And in the right
environment, it can work almost seamlessly.
2. Wrapped up in chains-- the hazards of Fascination
OK, so why should we bother with effortful concentration at all if this
Fascination stuff is so easy and effective?
For one thing, being tied to the chain of stimulus and response has its
When Fascination is in control, we respond to what's happening when it
happens. Scary stories, parties, video games and storms are all fascinating
in this sense. The gaudier, louder, nastier something is, the more
our involuntary Fascination responds. The more basic and "primitive" it
is, the more we get trapped in its spell. We
tend to sell out to the flashiest bidder.
Advertisers, con men, entertainers, news programmers and politicians
know the power of such survival-related stimuli as sex, violence, mysteries,
fears and danger, and how easy it is to trap or mislead people by using
Fascination. They do not hesitate to tap into our Involuntary Attention
own purposes. The modern advertising industry is based on using our built-in
survival mechanisms to sell soap.
When we are barraged with such carefully shaped Fascination-based propaganda,
our ability to think clearly and make sensible decisions plummets.
But human cultures also provide us with warnings and techniques to
resist the flashy and vulgar, our baser instincts, and bread and circuses
It is no accident that many important prayers are of the form, “Lead
us not into temptation.”
In order to resist such alien invasions, to focus on what we ourselves
decide is important, and make our own plans despite the siren song
of things inherently fascinating, it is important to be able to call
Directed Attention allows us to step back, consider, make alternate
plans, resist, refocus, put the current razzmatazz up against our values
goals, and in general advance from a rigid chain of stimulus and response
into a more decision-based frame of reference.
So far we have mostly talked about the really hard Fascination, the
kind that grabs our attention and won’t let go. But there is
another more subtle aspect of Fascination, known as Soft Fascination.
of being captivated by large, loud, survival-related things, our attention
can be gently attracted without dominating us.
Soft Fascination is the
quieter kind of Involuntary Attention.
Our attention can be gently led by small, often rhythmic, natural
events. Things such as light flickering through leaves, the sound
rocking in a rocking chair, a ticking clock, watching fish in a fish
people passing by. Petting a dog. Playing with kids. Gardening. Puttering.
Walking in the woods or through a park.
This kind of fascination is often soothing and pleasant, and we can
drift off in it and rest our directed attention in the process. Where
many people go down to the lake for lunch, and watch the waves and
clouds and birds. Others enjoy having lunch downtown
can watch the people walking by. Both are examples of Soft Fascination.
Mihaly, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience
R, (1991) Principles of Neural Science, 3rd ed, New York, Elsevier
S. (1978). Attention and fascination: The search for cognitive clarity.
In S. Kaplan & R. Kaplan (Eds.), Humanscape:
Environments For People.
Belmont, CA: Duxbury. (Republished by Ann Arbor, MI: Ulrich's, 1982.)