Number 3—Learned Fascination
Wouldn’t it be nice if the things we wanted to pay attention to were
the ones we found riveting?
Well, we are somewhat in luck. While it is not built in and automatic like
involuntary Fascination, we do have a system called Learned Fascination
that helps us do this.
It takes effort over time to acquire this kind of fascination, and then
eventually it takes on a life of its own.
Learned Fascination is any kind of engaging hobby, interest, or enthusiasm
that captivates us but is not automatically fascinating for everyone.
It may include such activities as stamp collecting, oil painting, reading,
embroidery, nuclear physics, writing, or art collecting.
Unlike built-in fascinations involving food, shelter, sex, or animals,
our Learned Fascinations take some time and work. One way to tell the difference
between the two is that very small children get hooked into automatic fascinations,
but not to learned ones. A baby may be intrigued by a bright pretty stamp,
but will not stick around long enough to look at the whole collection.
However, the same baby can remain fascinated with an animal for a long
While learned fascinations are often hobbies, for the lucky few, work itself
can become fascinating. This may be more common where there we master an
extensive field of knowledge, such as medicine, art, or research. The more
extensive our mental maps of a field, the more it can inhibit other thoughts
and keep itself going.
Sometimes we develop Learned Fascinations in school, such as when we start
to love reading, history, or science. Even when we do learn the subject
in school, the fascination may develop more rapidly and powerfully if we
work on our own with them outside of school. This is especially the case
for learned fascinations with strong innate components, such as hunting,
fishing, gardening, dancing, sports, painting, exploring, music, pets– and
Obviously, even enthusiasms that start at a very basic level
can develop into more abstract learned fascinations. I know a number of
biologists who started out by catching insects or snakes or frogs as kids.
Each of these Learned Fascinations carries its own juice, and in some cases
can carry us along so easily it can rest our directed attention system.
Especially restorative are ones that involve some room for contemplation
and mental housekeeping, so that things that keep the mind all fussed up
can be packed away in safe places.
What drives Learned Fascination?
Learned Fascination runs on the brain function known as Regional Inhibition.
With regional inhibition, activity in one region shuts down activity in
other nearby regions. It’s like a very polite group—when one
person speaks, everyone else is automatically quiet.
Learned Fascination can be especially effective if we have developed elaborate,
large areas of interest. Someone who knows the history of stamps and stories
about their uses will have more powerful learned facinaton than the person
who just casually enjoys seeing them on envelopes.
When Directed Attention juice is scarce, this Learned Fascination system,
which uses different pathways, can take over and keep us going. We use
this when we delve into work as a way of escaping from personal worries.
This activity--our period of captivation--can even shut down nearby nagging
thoughts, thus giving us extra moments of peace. For a while, it quiets
down worries as a side-effect, without using precious bodily fluids.
But regional inhibition also has its limits. We can focus our efforts so
long in one area that regional inhibition for the area begins to fail,
then we need increasing intervention from Directed Attention. Even if we
don’t notice that this crossover has happened, it can wear us out
just as much as doing serious number crunching.
Examples of Learned Fascination