What You Need to Know About Attention Restoration Theory

Nature's Pervasive Effects

An abundance of research has been conducted over the last fifty years on the effect that nature has on human beings. The psychological effects alone include benefits like decreased anxiety, stress and anger, improved self esteem, and treatment of depression. There's another branch of that research I want to discuss here, however, because of its implications for your motivation. That branch deals with the effect nature has on cognition, or mental functioning. I’ve included links to some of this research if you want to learn more, but there are literally hundreds of studies on this topic that approach it from every conceivable angle. One of the most widely-held theories on the benefits of nature on human cognition is called Attention Restoration Theory.

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Much of the research that has been conducted over the last 25 years have been attempts to confirm or refute specific elements of this theory.

The genesis of Attention Restoration Theory

Attention Restoration Theory was developed by professors Rachel Kaplan, Ph.D., and Stephen Kaplan, Ph.D. of the University of Michigan in the 1980s.

Attention Restoration Theory asserts that there are two different types of attention: directed attention and effortless attention. Directed attention requires you to consciously focus your mind, to perform higher-order functions like evaluating or constructing logical arguments, inferring meaning, evaluating risks and consequences, and making decisions. Those complex mental processes require a high level of focus and mental energy, not only to perform the task itself, but also to resist distractions and impulses to do other things.

Directed attention then, by definition, requires self control. I’ve discussed the concept of self control in another post, and how you can strengthen it, so that your baseline, or “normal”, level of self control increases over time. In this post, my primary focus is the effect that nature has on replenishing your self-control “muscle” when it has been weakened or depleted. This is relevant to your motivation, because low motivation is often the result of a lack of self control to resist your impulses that try to convince you to do something easier and/or more pleasurable.

Spending a significant amount of time directing your attention at a task or series of tasks results in what Attention Restoration Theory calls directed-attention fatigue (DAF). This fatigue steadily diminishes your effectiveness, i.e. your ability at any point in time to produce high-quality work. I’ve discussed the concept of effectiveness in another post.

Nature and Attention Restoration Theory

One of the fundamental assumptions of Attention Restoration Theory is that complex cognitive functions and self control both draw from the same energy source. There is some debate within the academic community whether that energy source is purely physiological (i.e. the quality and quantity of your food supply), purely psychological, or some combination of the two. In either case, exposure to nature has been shown to replenish this shared resource. Exposure to nature has been shown to improve focus, working memory, cognitive performance, and self control.

It’s important to note that exposure to nature does not simply mean “getting outside”, although it could, depending on where you live. Getting outside in an urban setting does not provide the attentional relief that natural settings do. This is because urban environments are full of things that capture your attention, like car horns, sirens, billboards and stoplights. Even worse, many of those same things also require you to use directed attention for the purpose of making a decision. For example, you need to decide when it is safe to cross the street, what to do when you hear that siren, and what to do with the information you just saw on that billboard. Consequently, urban settings continue the cycle of directed-attention fatigue.

Natural environments, on the other hand, invoke the other kind of attention described in Attention Restoration Theory: effortless attention. Generally speaking, natural settings do not pull at your attention relentlessly, forcing you to make decision after decision. Instead, they inspire quiet observation, appreciation and relaxation. While you do need to get outside regularly if you want sustain these benefits long-term, the research has shown that even short-term exposure can yield a temporary boost in the benefits I described earlier.

It’s worth noting that cell phones and other attention-grabbing devices produce the same kinds of stimulation as urban environments. So, even if you do get away into a natural setting, if you carry your cell phone with you, you won’t get the same benefits because you stuck a piece of urban life in your pocket before you left.

Doubling down

If you want to multiply the benefits of nature you can do what’s called "green exercise”, which is just a name for physical activity that’s performed in a natural setting, rather than in your home or at the gym. The nice thing about green exercise is that you can compound the restorative benefits that nature has on your self control with exercise. I've discussed the benefits that exercise has on your self control and motivation in another post.

So the takeaway from this research is that, if you want to reduce your stress level, improve your mood and self esteem, and ramp up your memory and self control, start scheduling regular nature breaks into your routine. If you can do it every day or at least something close to it, you will benefit significantly. But even if you live in a densely urban area and can only get away on the weekends, it will still yield benefits that will make it worth the trip.

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