Here is something fascinating about fascination. The best way to restore a fatigued upper brain is to put yourself in natural surroundings. In a natural setting, we spontaneously operate in being mode. Why? The answer is complex, but “fascination” is the short answer. Fascination, originally named by William James, occurs when what is perceived in and of itself attracts our attention. Our attention is not being assigned and defended, which reduces the energy demand. Perception and thinking are occurring, without the need for executive function discipline. This state of mind is inherently relaxing and low in energy demand.Here is how three of the top researchers in restorative psychology explain our two modes of attending.
Nature, which is filled with intriguing stimuli, modestly grabs attention in a bottom-up fashion, allowing top-down directed-attention abilities a chance to replenish. Unlike natural environments, urban environments are filled with stimulation that captures attention dramatically and additionally requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car), making [urban environments] less restorative. Marc G. Berman, John Jonides, Stephen Kaplan, “The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature.”
There are two theories about how being mode functions to restore our executive functions (doing mode). One theory says “resting” in being mode restores attention after prolonged activity weakens it. The other theory says stress is reduced in being mode. Likely, both are true. A tired brain and increased stress seem like companion outcomes to a mind caught up in decisions, blocking distractions, making choices, creating solutions.
But the author (MM) doubts being mode exists solely to restore doing mode. From an evolutionary standpoint, the apparatus of being mode largely evolved before the evolution of the cerebral cortex. Being mode has a more fundamental function. This is the mode early humans would have been in much of the time. They spent time attending to the natural world around them, observing the landscape for food and listening for the rustle of foliage, as opposed to driving through traffic while speaking hands-free. The more complicated society gets, the more we are in doing mode. Fascination, which characterizes being mode, is a product of natural selection. Observation of the annual cycle of plant growth and animal migration – countless details in the environment – was important for survival. We retain fascination for natural environments, and being in a state of fascination is a break from a busy world.
You don’t need to go to a wilderness to find mental restoration. Experiments have shown that a walk through an arboretum, looking out the window at a scene with nature elements or even sitting in a room decorated with nature scenes has a restorative effect.
Psychologists nearly unanimously accept that there are four features of restorative experiences. The first is that what is experienced is capable of eliciting fascination. A sense of being away is another. The environment must be compatible with your interests. Perhaps the most important for human health is the fourth ingredient, a sense of connection. Two important take-aways from this.
Take-away 1: A sense of connectedness to the world (or cosmos) is beneficial for mental health. Restores energy, reduces stress, combats anxiety and depression.
Take away 2: Nature is the best place to obtain a sense of connectedness.
By now you may be asking what this has to do with cell phone use. For starters, cell phone flipping is a high-demand, directed attention activity. So is any screen use that involves rapid information surfing, so-called multi-tasking and digital gaming.
Your phone may be winding you up. Symptoms of directed attention
over-load include irritability, reduced cognitive performance and
depression. When you are constantly staring at a screen, you are not
giving your brain an opportunity to restore and refresh and you are
avoiding activities that are mentally and physically healthy.
Bigger than all of that, you are disconnecting from the world. You stare at you phone while you walk, on the bus, while on the treadmill, while having lunch with friends. We can feel connected to the world almost anywhere; however, feeling connected is easier in fascinating environments, exemplified by nature. Connection is a feeling or understanding of your place in the world. When you observe your surroundings with curiosity, you find delight and interest and reaching out to your surroundings connects you to them. Connect to the world, connect to others – and find yourself. Be the fullest person you can be given your one opportunity for life.