Kate’s comment on my last post really got me thinking. (It will be helpful to read it now, if you haven’t already done so). In it, she tells of the difficulty she and her husband, Roo, had tolerating car travel following seven weeks of walking through natural and rural countryside. They found that their brains had to re-adjust to a “non-natural” flow of visual information and the pace of movement.
What Kate describes strikes me as a dramatic instance of directed or voluntary attention fatigue (DAF). The term “directed attention fatigue” may be unfamiliar to you, but you will know the experience itself. You may associate it with driving, with the close reading of documents for work purposes rather than for pleasure or with staring at a computer screen for hours. You may know it from being in a job that puts you at the hub of different channels of communication – email and phone as well as talking face-to-face, for example. Even negotiating busy footpaths and shopping malls requires directed attention. All such situations set us up for DAF because they require us to maintain attention in the face of many potential distractions. Carefully focussing on information from one source while we try to block out the information from others involves mental effort.
Psychologists have long distinguished between two kinds of attention – voluntary and involuntary. You are engaged in voluntary attention right now as you read this post. You are aware of what you are doing and you are mindfully in charge of the process. Your attention is directed to the words on the page because that is what you have decided. You are making the effort to pay attention or concentrate.
Now imagine that you hear an unusual bird-call right outside the window of the room you are in. What happens? Straight away you would have your head turned and eyes directed at the window and beyond. No volition or thinking would be involved. Your response would be involuntary or automatic. You would not be able to resist the attraction of the sound. You would be under its spell so to speak. This is involuntary attention or “fascination” (from the Latin word for “spell”, fascinum).
Whereas voluntary or directed attention requires effort and is fatiguing – often damagingly so, involuntary attention or fascination requires no effort and is restorative – often therapeutically so.
Interest is the primary driver of attention. High interest makes us attend in an automatic, involuntary and centred way. Low interest, on the other hand, leaves the brain with the options of paying attention or not doing so. What happens will be largely a matter of choice. As it is associated with high-level interest, fascination is sometimes spoken of as interest-driven attention. Voluntary attention, on the other hand, is described as choice-driven attention.
Because it is our biological “home”, nature holds an enormous amount of intrinsic interest for us, more than we instinctively find in the fabric and artefacts of the constructed world. As part of biophilia’s legacy, we are born with a disposition to experience nature as interesting, but we have no such innate disposition in relation to created environments. That is why, in the human mind, nature and fascination go together.
The distress that Kate and Roo experienced was produced by their wrenching transition from the comfort of fascination to the challenge of directed attention. It illustrates vividly the mental and emotional burden that voluntary attention, especially under conditions of sensory bombardment, can impose.
The worrying thing is that we can “get used” to living with sensory or information overload. This does not mean that we are freed from the hard work of voluntary attention. It just means that we manage to “put up with it”. We can even be duped into thinking that operating with directed attention is “normal”. Kate and Roo’s experience should tell us emphatically that it is not.
Certainly, the intensity of their experience was exceptional, probably because they are both highly nature-aware and nature-sensitive individuals. I can hear some people saying that such an experience would never be theirs, insisting perhaps that they are more comfortable mentally and emotionally with urban sights and sounds. So, they might ask, what does this say about fascination and biophilia?
Sadly the question should be, what is it saying about them – about their sensitivity to nature in particular? We may have inherited brains that are geared for mental and emotional engagement with nature, but this awesome complex of abilities (our biophilia in other words) has to be cultivated through use. Neglect these abilities and they atrophy. Dulled, they no longer serve our own well-being and indeed the well-being of the planet.
When we divorce ourselves from nature we lose one of the most life-enriching and life-affirming parts of ourselves. We owe it to ourselves, our loved ones and humanity not let that happen. Come to think of it, these two sentences sum up very nicely my rationale for writing Claim Your Wildness and publishing this blog.