A Focus on Nature: The Attention Restoration Theory

Spending a long period of time on a task that requires intense focus and concentration can be mentally exhausting for the human brain. Within modern day working environments, we are required to remain attentive during different tasks and activities throughout the day. However, working under pressure, or for a vast period of time can increase stress and anxiety levels, which can result in irritableness, mental fatigue and reduced engagement with the task at hand. How can we consistently re-energise and renew our attention so that we can work more productively and efficiently?

The attention restoration theory, proposed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan¹, suggests that nature can help to replenish our mental and attentional capacity. When we are dealing with a task that demands high levels of concentration, we exert mental energy from certain parts of the brain. However, the Attention Restoration Theory suggests that by changing to a different type of task that uses different parts of the brain, we can help restore our attention levels2.

According to Kaplan, we can activate these different parts of the brain by exposing ourselves to direct and indirect references to nature. These interactions with nature only require “effortless attention”, which can help to give the brain a break from “directed attention” and thus help restore its cognitive functioning3.

NF400, NF401, Felt

Urban vs. natural environments

Statistics have shown that there has been a major movement of populations globally into urban areas and that we are as disconnected from nature as we have ever been. Unfortunately, there are many disruptive factors that occur within these dense urban areas, including noise pollution from the increasing population, the ubiquity of technology and the need for regular transportation. It has been proven that this type of environment is less effective for stress and attention restoration and recovery from mental fatigue4.

In a recent nationwide survey carried out in The Netherlands, 95% of the respondents indicated that they believe a visit to nature is a useful way of obtaining relief from stress5. This kind of exposure to nature gives an individual a sense of ‘being away’ from their usual daily routines within urban areas, which tend to involve experiences or activities that require higher attention levels.

Kaplan believes that nature contains many calming stimuli, which he describes as “soft fascinations6, for example, clouds moving across a sky or leaves rustling in the wind. These aesthetically pleasing natural elements have the ability to attract and hold an individual’s attention effortlessly and, to some extent, involuntarily7. His theory suggests that experiencing a natural environment that doesn’t require any direct focus, but effortless reflection, can allow the attention system to recover from depletion.

Research in Norway stated that natural elements found within an office space, such as plants, have the ability to prevent fatigue when completing tasks that demand high levels of attention8. Bearing this study in mind, it is psychologically beneficial to incorporate Biophilic Design principles i.e. greenery and natural patterns, into our working environments. As a result, Biophilic elements provide a more tranquil setting, allowing inhabitants to experience the more “effortless attention” that Kaplan discusses in his theory.

Pushing our attention capacity to its limit on a regular basis has potentially negative psychological results, including mental exhaustion. Next time you feel your attention span waning, remember to allow yourself a break and surround your mind with nature.

Tell us about your experiences about connecting with nature in the workplace and what you think could be changed to help improve your focus.


Additional Reading

1 Kaplan, R. Kaplan, S. (1989). The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. Cambridge University Press.

2 Kaplan, S. (1995) The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, v.15, Page 169-182

3 Grinde, B., & Patil, G. G. (2009). Biophilia: Does visual contact with nature impact on health and wellbeing?. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 6(9), Page 2334-2335

4, 5 Agnes E. van den Berg, Terry Hartig, Henk Staats. Preference for Nature in Urbanized Societies: Stress, Restoration, and the Pursuit of Sustainability

6, 7 Kaplan, R. Kaplan, S. (1989). The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. Cambridge University Press.

8 Raanaas, R. K., Horgen-Evensen, K., Rich, D., Sjostrom, G. & Patil, G. (2011). Benefits of indoor plants on attention capacity in an office setting. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 31, 99-105.

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