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Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Soft Fascination, Place Identity and All Quiet on the Home Front

I was reading about Soft Fascination, the idea that comes from The Experience of Nature by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan.

It's a very simple idea that leads on from the division of attention into directed and involuntary categories. Anything with a screen, with text, with images is directed. Anything where your brain is tuned into something organised and functional, that fits in some kind of grid, is directed. most 'relaxing' activities are directed. Relaxing activities drain us.

We live in a directed society and it's exhausting. We need relief from it. We live in a directed society and it's exhausting. We need relief from it. And that's where soft fascination comes in. It even sounds lovely. And that's because it is.

Soft Fascination provides relief from our exhausting lifestyles in the form of involuntary attention, the kind that you have when you walk in the woods wondering at the light flickering through the trees, when you lie down in a meadow and watch the clouds float by, when you doze on the beach listening to the sound of the waves. All of these involve attention but it doesn't fit within a grid, it has an inbuilt irregularity that stops it settling into the kind of regular pattern. The fractal patterns of light through trees, the movement of clouds, the sound of the waves all have an irregularity that is self-disruptive. In essence we can't concentrate on them. That is what makes them relaxing. It's the regularity that is exhausting.

So going out into nature, even the rough nature that you get around cities provides a restoration of energies, a rebuilding and firming up of the soul. That's what soft fascination does for you - it allows you to fall into yourself, to detach yourself from the gridded patterns of life. And the it takes place in environments that are restoring, so there is the idea of the Restorative Environment. 

I've written about forest-bathing before, which is something similar, but it's always rather lovely when you a new idea that corresponds to your own work, but you've never seen before.

All Quiet on the Home Front is all about that soft fascination, about finding some form of equilibrium in trees, water, flora, the elements. In a world where words, images, and the life-sapping parasitism of social media is competing for attention in a destruction manner, soft fascination is an antidote to the exhaustion. It is completely about the restorative environment both in the form Kaplan (and Burkeman) write about, but also in the sense of place attachment and place identity, the idea that a strong sense of place creates grounding points for memory and self that can act as external reset points throughout one's life; it's the idea of people being of this world rather than in control of this world in other words. The former potentially makes you happy, the latter most definitely does not. So

Anyway, this is what Burkeman says about it

Soft fascination has two crucial components. First, it’s effortless: you don’t need to “try to focus” on the wind in the trees, or a moor top blanketed in heather. Second, it’s partial: it absorbs some attention, but leaves some free for reflection, conversation or mind-wandering. The result is what the Kaplans called “cognitive quiet”, in which the muscle of effortful attention – the one you use to concentrate on work – gets to rest, but without the boredom you’d feel if you had nothing to focus on. This helps explain why nature’s benefits aren’t restricted to, say, trips to the Grand Canyon or Great Barrier Reef. Those places seize your whole attention, whereas your local park may seize just enough of it to let the rest of your mind relax.

Think about attention like this, and it becomes clear how irresponsibly we usually treat our own supply of it. “To concentrate on a task, you need to block out distractions,” as the design and technology expert Richard Coyne has written – and “once that blocking function gets worn down by fatigue, you are more likely to act on impulse, to shirk tasks that prove too challenging [or] to become irritable.” But all too often, we respond to concentration fatigue by trying to concentrate on something different: email, social media, TV – “things that are more engaging but less challenging”. No wonder that doesn’t work: it’s like taking a rest after lifting dumbbells by lifting different dumbbells. Nature, by contrast, lets us switch modes. To quote Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park, it “employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquillises it and yet enlivens it”.

There’s plenty of evidence for the soft fascination thesis. But for me, it’s personal experience that makes it ring so true. To listen to some proponents of mindfulness, you might think the best way to engage with nature is being totally immersed in the scenery. Yet anyone who loves hiking knows part of the pleasure is in pondering other matters as you walk, or in meandering conversations – rambling while rambling. Countless famous thinkers – Darwin, Thoreau, Wordsworth – swore by daily walks in nature. But they were still thinking as they walked.

And here are some formative thoughts from Kaplan on the idea of The Restorative Environment

The thrust of my argument can summarized in terms of three basic themes:

1. Increasing pressures lead to problems of mental fatigue.
2. Restorative experiences are an important means of reducing mental fatigue, and have a special connection to natural environments.
3. Natural environments, in providing these deeply needed restorative experiences,play an essential role in human functioning. 

These themes, in turn, lead to three groups of questions that 1 shall attempt to address:
1. The first set of questions concerns the pressures members of modem society face: Why are these pressures increasing? What impact do they have?

2. The second set concerns what Rachel Kaplan and I have come to call "restorative experiences," that is, experiences that help people recover from mental fatigue: What is the nature of these experiences? How do they achieve their substantial benefits? How does nature play a special role in providing such experiences?

3. Finally, what makes natural environments so important? What kinds of significant impacts can they have on the life of an individual? 

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