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Attention

A Cheap Way to Restore Your Attention and Focus

"Green experiences" can overcome the cognitive fatigue caused by modern life.

Key points

  • Attention restoration theory (ART) explains how nature can restore our focus and attention.
  • Modern life requires "directed attention," cognitive focus while ignoring distractions, but this takes a cognitive toll.
  • High demands for directed attention lead to directed attentional fatigue, so we have trouble concentrating and resisting unhealthy temptations.
  • Attention and focus can be restored by nature experiences with the qualities of soft fascination and extent and provide a sense of being away.

Are you or your children having trouble focusing or concentrating? How about resisting the things that aren't good for you? In a 2008 article, Berman et al. asked readers to “Imagine a therapy that has no side effects, was readily available and could improve your cognitive functioning at zero cost?” The therapy they had in mind was nature.

ˆAttention Restoration Theory

In 1989 Rachel and Stephen Kaplan proposed a theory called attention restoration theory (ART) that explains why many of us experience cognitive (mental) fatigue and how “green experiences” can help us restore our cognitive functioning.

Modern life requires what ART calls directed attention or voluntary attention. Think of it this way: Many things we do require focusing and concentrating while simultaneously blocking out “task-irrelevant stimuli.”

Concentration and focus are the jobs of the central executive. In psychology, the brain's executive functions are those responsible for higher-order cognitive functions, including focused attention and decision-making.

For instance, smartphone users must tune out the siren song of texts and social media and/or streaming entertainment media when working or learning. Likewise, noisy open office spaces or school settings and working or learning from home typically require lots of directed attention. High concentration and focus are needed for completing complex tasks like finding a place to live, dealing with legal matters, and sifting through information for decision-making.

Using our smartphones to text, read, watch media, etc., when other people are present, or there’s background noise or distractions, requires loads of directed attention. More than half of the world’s population lives in urban environments, and ART theorists believe they are at particular risk for DAF.

ˆMy Brain Is Tired: Directed Attentional Fatigue

High demands for directed attention eventually lead to directed attentional fatigue (DAF). This means we have trouble concentrating and paying attention. DAF is also important because it’s linked to poorer decision-making and lowered self-control. That makes it harder for us to resist temptations that aren’t good for our health. DAF may reduce our performance at work, school, and home and even affect our relationships if it reduces our ability to focus and listen to others.

Nature (Green) Experiences Counter DAF

Nature can help us restore our attention and focus especially if it provides soft fascination, a sense of being away, extent, and compatibility, and we aren't on our smartphones.
nadia_if/Shutterstock
Source: Nature can help us restore our attention and focus especially if it provides soft fascination, a sense of being away, extent, and compatibility, and we aren't on our smartphones.

ART also says that in addition to soft fascination, natural environments are also restorative because they often give us a sense of being away. This means that the environment has qualities that give us a feeling of getting a break from daily hassles and obligations.

Extent is another quality of natural environments that have restorative properties. Richard Kaplan described it as the environment is “rich enough and coherent enough to constitute another world” so that it engages the mind and takes up the space in our heads normally occupied by everyday concerns. ·

Another quality contributing to an environment being restorative is that the particular environment is a good fit for the person. In other words, it offers them the opportunity to do things they like or have an experience they like. This environmental quality is called compatibility.

Maximize the Restorative Effects of Your Green Experience

A green experience, even a short break in a natural setting, may be just what you and your family need to replenish your attention and focus. It’s a good health practice to teach our children (although they may resist it at first if they spend lots of time indoors). Maximize the restorative effects of your green experience by:

  • Ignoring/turning off your smartphones unless it’s to take a few select pics.
  • Engaging in minimal conversation while in nature.
  • "Thought-stopping" (if you find you're not "present" because you're worrying, say to yourself, "Stop, I'll think about that later," or allow yourself a designated amount of time to problem-solve, so you don't prevent restoration).
  • Identifying places in your community or near your workplace with features that provide:
    • Soft fascination, such as good locations to view the sunset or watch the clouds or waves roll in.
    • The feeling of being away from your everyday life, like a short walk in a nature preserve or walk by a river or creek.
    • Beautiful, breath-taking vistas and views of the water, valleys, and other natural landscapes.
    • Compatibility (consider your preferences, fears and safety concerns, mobility and fitness level, etc.).
  • Soft fascination, such as good locations to view the sunset or watch the clouds or waves roll in.
  • The feeling of being away from your everyday life, like a short walk in a nature preserve or walk by a river or creek.
  • Beautiful, breath-taking vistas and views of the water, valleys, and other natural landscapes.
  • Compatibility (consider your preferences, fears and safety concerns, mobility and fitness level, etc.).

Green experiences also increase our connections to the natural world, which benefits our mental health, boosts the restorative effects of nature, and raises the environmental concern and action central to environmental sustainability. Providing nature experiences for our children is one of the best things we can do for them and ourselves.

References

Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19, 1207-1212.

Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. Cambridge University Press.

Leonhardt, D. (2022). On the phone alone. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/10/briefing/adolescent-mental-health-cr…

Mayer, F. S., & Frantz, C. M. (2004). The connectedness to nature scale: A measure of individuals’ feeling in community with nature. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 24, 503-515.

Ohly, H., White, M. P., Wheeler, B. W., Bethel, A., Ukoumunne, O. C., Nikolaou, V., & Garside, R. (2016). Attention Restoration Theory: A systematic review of the attention restoration potential of exposure to natural environments. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B, 19, 305-343.

Richardson, M., Dobson, J., Abson, D. J., Lumber, R., Hunt, A., Young, R., & Moorhouse, B. (2020). Applying the pathways to nature connectedness at a societal scale: A leverage points perspective. Ecosystems and People, 16, 387-401.

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