Research shows that spending time in nature helps restore our ability to pay attention.
Photo by Lukas Neasi on Unsplash
A phrase I heard often as a child.
When I was in second grade, my teacher made me wear earmuffs to keep me from socializing. These massive, early 90’s, noise-cancelling headphones complete with an antenna must have looked ridiculous on my tiny head.
Mrs. Rudiak was trying to force me concentrate on the assignment we were supposed to be working on. I remember constantly scanning the room, watching my classmates giggle and gawk. The headphones did not help.
Some twenty years later, and my ability to pay attention has significantly improved. Must have been all those helpful reminders.
From time to time though, I feel my attention tank hit empty.
According to research, this is known as directed attention fatigue, and the cure; spending time in nature.
Directed Attention — The Ultimate Tool for Success and Mastery
You are using directed attention right now as you read. This type of attention is extremely important for complex tasks like writing a proposal, learning to play an instrument, organizing a big event like a wedding, managing a project with many deadlines, having a tough conversation or just surviving a busy day at the office. It’s the “buckle down” type of attention.
Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash
A healthy ability to lock into one task for a significant amount of time elevates learning, engagement and ultimately accomplishment in our jobs, pursuits and relationships.
Directed Attention Fatigue — A Drained Battery
Our capacity for directed attention is like a battery. After a refreshing vacation it is fully charged, but as we use it throughout the days and weeks it begins to drain.
A significant or intense period of directed attention will lead to directed attention fatigue; the subject becomes inattentive, withdrawn, irritable, impatient, susceptible to distraction and even prone to accidents. At this point, the attention battery is dead.
Consider the feeling you may have had after completing a demanding project, signing a stressful agreement, or completing a large event or presentation. You’re wiped — exhausted. There’s no mental energy left in the tank; making dinner becomes rocket science, conversation with a spouse or roommate seems impossible. Many of us turn to TV or social media to entertain our tapped out brains.
Directed attention fatigue can be present with less obvious symptoms as well. Without a proper charge of the drained battery, an individual may struggle with:
Selection — Choosing how to approach a problem solving scenario. For example, empathy might be better than criticism in a critical conversation with a family member. Deciding on the best approach is pivotal in overcoming problems in life and work.
Inhibition and affect — Overriding impulses that may not suit the scenario. This includes biting your tongue, or forcing yourself to do work that is unpleasant, or boring but necessary.
Thought — Big picture thinking requires directed attention. When an immediate solution is not obvious, the individual may struggle with creating and following a plan.
Action — Impatience is common with those experiencing directed attention fatigue, so their actions become more short term oriented.
Attention Restoration Theory
Attention fatigue can pose a serious threat to our success at work or in life. The ability to recover quickly and effectively is essential.
Thankfully, the cure happens to be enjoyable, free and all-natural.
Rachel and Stephen Kaplan — professors of psychology at the University of Michigan — developed a solution called the Attention Restoration Theory, or ART. It suggests, simply, that people can recover from directed attention fatigue quicker by spending time in, or looking at nature.
The restorative mechanism presented in the Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory is a second type of attention, called involuntary attention. While directed attention requires significant effort, involuntary attention is effortless to the point where it is actually difficult not to do.
Examples on involuntary attention are everywhere: eavesdropping on a public argument, watching a puppy explore a new environment, hearing a story of someone being cheated, or seeing a deer or raccoon right outside your home. Experts maintain that the restorative application of involuntary attention is especially promoted by natural environments.
Use of involuntary attention is like switching power sources from the empty directed attention battery, to the fresh involuntary battery. This switch allows directed attention to begin to rest and recover (Kaplan 1995).
Maximizing ART — How To Properly Recover
The key component in involuntary attention is fascination, but not just any kind. To be restorative, it must be soft fascination (Kaplan 1995); gentle stimuli like seeing a waterfall, listening to leaves rustle in the wind, or observing a squirrel collecting nuts are examples.
Gentle stimuli hold your attention lightly, allowing mental space for recovery. While it may feel comforting, watching TV or browsing social media are considered hard fascination, demanding significant attentive resources which inhibit the brain’s ability to recover from directed attention fatigue.
Soft fascination also provides the mental space for reflection — an added bonus. As attention is not being aggressively demanded, we are able to occasionally break involuntary attention and reflect on our lives and current issues (Herzog et al. 1997; Kaplan and Berman 2010).
Instructions — Your Restorative Experience
Parks, forests, and other green spaces offer a great variety of gentle stimuli. Stephen Kaplan refer to these places as restorative settings.
In addition to fascination, Kaplan writes that a proper restorative setting must feel removed from normal life, and expansive. Many green spaces and parks have pathways designed to make the spaces feel bigger than they are, so this should be easy.
It’s also beneficial to prime your mind before hand, letting go of day to day issues and worries, and typical thought patterns. I know — much harder than it sounds. Try breaking these old thought patterns by using new physical patterns — a taller posture, looking up instead of down, walking at a different pace than usual, or breathing deeper. And of course, let nature fascinate you.
Once you’re walking or sitting in nature:
Simply allow gentle stimuli to hold your attention. The David Suzuki Foundation has tips on things you can look for and pay attention to to boost the therapeutic effects of nature: 30x30 Nature Challenge
When there is nothing grabbing your attention visually, breathe deeply and notice what you smell, or listen to the constant commotion of the forest. Avoid stimuli like music, phone calls and social media.
If you spot any animals, birds or critters, observe them closely. What are they up to? You may be surprised by how many storylines there are to follow.
Allow for occasional reflection, but avoid getting too lost in your thoughts. Remember to return to soft fascination of the natural environment.
It may take some practice, but with time you will find nature therapy to be a useful tool in restoring attention, reducing stress, and increasing mental clarity.
Sign Up For More Healthy Habits
We send our subscribers the latest habits, with simple, easy to follow instructions.
Healthy Habits is our blog series exploring different ways to stay healthy during the week. We provide background and how-to advice for:
Magic Mornings — Start your day off right to optimize performance at work, feel better, and protect your mind against stress.
Wellness at Work — Tips and tricks for staying healthy at the office.
Rest and Recharge — Decompress and prepare for the next day.
Sign up to our mailing list to receive our latest Healthy Habits on our homepage at cimed.ca. Subscribers will receive exclusive tips, discounts and giveaways from CIMED Integrative Medical Center.