Friday, August 10, 2012

Attention Restoration

Restoring the capacity to direct attention:
A pre-condition for civil and stewardship behavior

Listen: Interview on mental vitality and localization (from Radio EcoShock)

Directed attention is a foundational mental resource that allows us to voluntarily manage the focus and direction of our thoughts and to regulate our emotions and behavior. It is useful for dealing with the short-term versus long-term choices involved in our effort to remain effective, productive, clearheaded and helpful. We use it to inhibit the power of the immediate environment and our internal/personal distractions, so as to allow consideration of less salient, perhaps mundane, but nonetheless valued information.

Directed attention allows for a variety of prosocial and proenvironmental behaviors. It allows us to pursue an important goal despite interesting competition in the immediate setting, to help others despite our own unmet personal needs, and to resist temptation so that we can maintain devotion to a larger concern. In short, the capacity to direct attention is an essential resource for achieving both civility and environmental stewardship.

Recent research shows that directed attention is a scarce and finite mental resource. When placed under continual demand, our ability to direct the focus of our thoughts tires, resulting in a condition called directed attention fatigue (DAF). This condition reduces our overall mental effectiveness and makes consideration of abstract concepts and long-term goals difficult, at best. A number of symptoms are commonly attributed to this fatigue: irritability and impulsivity that results in regrettable choices and statements, impatience that has us making risky or otherwise poor decisions, and distractibility that allows the immediate environment to have a greatly magnified effect on our choices and decisions. The symptoms of DAF can be summarized as a reduced ability to make and follow plans, and the inability to mentally restrain impulsive thought or action. Directed attention fatigue makes both proenvironmental and prosocial behavior much less likely.

If we value community, civility and environmental stewardship then taking action to manage our capacity to direct attention is not optional. Since it fatigues regularly, we must restore this resource regularly. The references below provide details on this precious mental resource and give advice for its support, management and restoration.

Related documents:

Raymond De Young
School for Environment and Sustainability
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109