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How Nature Rests, Restores, and Regenerates Our Minds

Attention restoration theory and the mental benefits of green space.

Key points

  • Our minds often shift with exposure to nature.
  • Attention Restoration Theory is the theory behind the pleasures and pros of birdwatching and other nature activities.
  • The positive impact of nature activities is similar to that of mindfulness or meditation.

"Nature itself is the best physician." —Hippocrates

Many studies show that exposure to nature enhances well-being and mental health. One nature experience that some have found helpful is birding or birdwatching. Two people mentioned birdwatching to me this month. One sent pictures of birds in flight near his home, the other drove to a preserve to see birds. When a great horned owl appeared in a tree in my backyard every morning at 9:30 a.m. for a few weeks, it was thrilling.

William Sage
Source: William Sage

The theory behind the pleasures and pros of birdwatching, as well as other nature activities, is Attention Restoration Theory developed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in their book, The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective (1989). According to Attention Restoration Theory, birdwatching and other nature animations facilitate indirect attention and restful, restorative, and regenerative states of mind. Attention Restoration Theory purports that after exposure to nature, concentration, as well as overall well-being, improve.

According to Attention Restoration Theory, the chosen setting should conjure four elements: fascination, being away, extension, compatibility. Fascination involves awe, transcendence, and deep absorption. Being away includes physical separation from a demanding environment or letting go in the mind. Extension includes freely exploring the landscape whether it is from a seated position at the window or by physically moving. Compatibility means that the setting suits the individual’s tastes and preferences.

These elements all involve indirect attention, also described as mind-wandering, evenly hovering attention, involuntary attention, and absent-mindedness. Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James, when accused of being absent-minded, said that he was really just present-minded to his own thoughts. (Barzun, 1983)

Shifting our minds into an indirect attention state through nature-based activities can bolster well-being. Whether we choose birdwatching or river gazing, gardening or treading through leaves, staring at an evergreen through a window, or sitting by vines on a stoop, making these activities a regular part of our lives improves our condition. Something about solid doses of non-goal-directed activity or love for the thing itself has a paradoxically positive impact on staying the course in other aspects of our lives.

It can be a challenge to give ourselves the time permission or psychological freedom to engage in what seems like a purposeless activity. So many people are time-starved. Indulging in something like river gazing or birding may feel like a waste of precious moments. What does one have to show for it? It can be fun to identify a bird from a book and perhaps expand one's fund of knowledge. In the end, the positive impact of nature activities is similar to that of mindfulness or meditation. By being in the present and letting the mind go where it will, we decrease stress and preserve our capacity to think and do in other aspects of our lives. Direct focus or attention is necessary for mastering many subjects but it is only enhanced by life-affirming experiences that rest, restore, and regenerate our minds. As Harvard Professor and author Edward O. Wilson wrote: "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction."

Even a few minutes helps.


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