Thinking About

My Superpower is Staring at Trees

What forest walks and smart storytellers taught me about soft fascination

Photo: Nick Page/Unsplash

I first learned about soft fascination last year, from the inside out.

Week after lockdown week, as the pandemic wore me down, I escaped to a nearby state forest to walk and breathe and reflect. Often, a kid or friend accompanied me. We’d wander in tandem on trail, or six feet apart along the dirt fire road, beneath towering redwoods.

Some days, I stole into nature alone, with only a playlist or audiobook as companion. And some days I went ‘naked’—nothing in my ears beyond the crunch of dry leaves underfoot or the whir of mountain bikes speeding past. The silence filled me up, as did the wash of green and brown.

What mattered most was going—just plain leaving the house. What also seemed to matter (because inevitably, it happened) was going to the same spot in a rhythm I could trust. To the same corner of magestic nature, I devoted my daily stretch of open minutes or hours. Climbing into my car in the dusty parking lot at the end of each hike, I felt like myself again—eyeballs washed, legs alive, thought patterns serene.

Turns out this visceral renewal was, in part, soft fascination at work.

Soft fascination is a component of Attention Restoration Theory, which holds (in a nutshell) that nature is far more than pretty and relaxing, it also has the power to restore concentration and heal mental fatigue. Time spent among gently captivating stimuli can, in essence, rehumanize us.

Before I knew the word for it, I knew soft fascination was the most valuable and rewarding feeling I could access in the acuity of socially restricted living. I never craved Tiger King or touched joy by baking sourdough—simply because neither beckoned me. Staring at trees was my lifeline.

Months into my habituated forest walks, I listened to author and psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour describe the phenomenon on her podcast. Excited, I saw my experience in her words. Advocating for soft fascination time in the lives of stressed adolescents in particular, Damour explained that we grant ourselves space to let cognitive friction ease when our mind can wander in a calming environment. “Soft fascination relieves stress by helping us close those mental browser tabs; unhurried reflection lets us sift through mental clutter, quiet internal noise and come up with fresh, useful solutions,” she writes.

In the weeks that followed, I slowly started to notice gentle daily moments—washing dishes while peeking at the clouds, turning over a soft cattail in my hand as I sat in the grass, listening to water ripple while soaking in a hot bath—give way to the feeling I equate with soft fascination.

Recently, I read (and shared and re-read) the eye-opening Medium story Markham Heid wrote about soft fascination, which shed further light on this, suggesting that mindfulness is “a kind of soft-fascination training”.

If you have yet to read this remarkable piece, you’re in for a treat. Perhaps it will prompt a deeper look at some of your own self-regulating patterns, how you give your besieged attention room to breathe. I know I never tire of staring at trees nor contemplating the endless ways we human creatures take mighty leaps in the simplest of moments.

Senior Editor, Health & Science @ Medium. I write and edit stories about health, well-being, and behavior. But sometimes I just write.