When the demands of daily life get to be a little much sometimes all it takes is a brisk walk outside to simmer down and release some excess tension. The smell of fresh air and the subtle sounds of nature have the unique ability to cleanse our thoughts and help us escape.
With more research into our connection with nature, science is always there to remind us that not only is spending time in nature a perfect way to unwind but is also an essential component to our mental health.
Attention Restoration Theory
ART is based on the idea that people can concentrate better after spending time in nature. The theory was developed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in the 1980’s and is the basis of their book The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective.
The core principle of this theory stems from past research showing the various states of attention:
- Directed Attention: Requires mental effort to avoid distraction.
- Directed Attention Fatigue: we become easily distracted, irritable, and impatient.
- Effortless Attention or Soft Fascination: The mind is able to apply focused attention with no effort. The focus of the mind is naturally drawn to the details of nature.
- Restored Attention: Attention is restored by changing to a different kind of task that uses different parts of the brain.
Attention restoration theory explores how people exposed to urban environments are forced to use their attention to overcome the effects of constant stimulation. This induces cognitive fatigue.
“Directed attention fatigues people through overuse,” Stephen Kaplan explains. “If you can find an environment where the attention is automatic, you allow directed attention to rest. And that means an environment that’s strong on fascination.”
Mere Exposure to Restorative Environments
Studies have even shown that we don’t even need to be physically present in nature to experience these restorative effects. An influential experiment by Berto (2005) evaluated if contact with nature could restore attention after mental fatigue.
A task was administered that involved individuals sustaining attention and subsequently, participants were shown images of natural or urban environments or geometrical patterns and then assessed again on the sustained attention task (Berto, 2005).
The results revealed that viewing the nature photographs improved attention and exposure to photographs of city settings decreased attention.
Balance and Renewal
The harmonious relationship that we have with nature has always been a central feature in Chinese philosophy. Traditional mind-body training such as Tai-Chi, Qigong, and meditation are often done outdoors to emphasize our connection to this earth and to our source.
Modern meditation techniques such as integrative body-mind training have also been coupled with nature to help improve attention and the quality of meditation.
When we are exposed to nature, there is no need to sustain mental focus or strain. We are naturally drawn to a balanced state through what is referred to as ‘soft fascination’ — effortless focus while being immersed in nature. This is often accompanied by an increase in energy and a feeling of being away from obligation.
In nature, we tend to feel a sense of escape from stress, and a connectedness that helps promote an experience of healing. Nature’s frequency is aligned with the most central part of the mind, and even just a few minutes in nature is enough to remind us that it is time to renew our mental resources.