How ‘Soft Fascination’ Helps Restore Your Tired Brain
Attention fatigue is a threat to your cognitive and mental health
Imagine shining a flashlight at a wall in a dark, empty room.
If you walk toward the wall, the light will contract. The closer you get to the wall, the smaller and more concentrated the beam of light becomes. By the time the flashlight is an inch from the wall, you’ll see a tight, bright circle of light surrounded by shadow and darkness.
Your attention is a lot like the beam of that flashlight. You can focus it closely and intensely on something, or you can relax it — allowing it to grow soft and diffuse.
A lot of research — much of it recent — has examined the different types and qualities of attention and their associations with mental health and cognitive functioning. This work has revealed that certain types of attention may tire out your brain and contribute to stress, willpower failures, and other problems.
Meanwhile, activities that broaden and soften your attention may reinvigorate your brain and promote psychological and cognitive wellbeing.
Whenever you train your attention on something — an act that cognitive scientists sometimes call “directed attention” — this requires effort. More effort is needed when other things (i.e. distractions) are vying for your attention, or if the thing you’re trying to focus on is boring.
According to a 2016 review from researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School in the U.K, your ability to effortfully focus your attention is finite. Just as an overworked muscle grows weak, overworking your attention seems to wear it out. When that happens, a lot can go wrong.
For one thing, your ability to concentrate plummets. Your willpower and decision-making abilities also take a hit. According to a 2019 study in the journal Occupational Health Science, attention fatigue may also contribute to stress and burnout.
There’s even some work linking attention fatigue to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). “The symptoms of ADHD and ‘attention fatigue’ so closely mirror each other that the Attention Deficit Disorders Evaluation Scale…