Nature is restorative: Attention restoration theory

Sunset through grass

Ever walk around a city and feel distracted by the background traffic noise and the billboard advertisements firing messages at you, whilst trying to organise the thoughts in your head so that you can remember what it was you were going to the shop for? Unsurprisingly, in urban environments we can experience mental fatigue. Scientists say this is because we have to exert effort to overcome the effects of constant stimulation. If we work in an office we may be juggling emails, phone calls, meetings and social media, whilst also thinking about the chores we have at home or what we are going to do at the weekend. To focus on the task at hand we need to block out the other distractions and this can cause depletion.

When we are in natural environments our cognitive functioning differs. In nature we tend to sense our surroundings more and appreciate the beauty around us, our mind can wander more freely. We can feel replenished and restored. Scientists call this experience in natural surroundings ‘indirect attention’ or ‘soft fascination’ and it’s part of a nature theory called Attention Restoration Theory (Kaplan 1989 and 1995). If you are able to be out in nature, see if you can sense any changes to your mindset, even looking out of a window at a tree or plants can help your mind to relax. Do you feel stressed and tired or relaxed and softer?

We can experience ‘soft fascination’ not only when we are out in nature but also when we look out of the window at trees or at the sky. The evidence about the restorative effects from looking at trees from a window is so convincing that the NHS support growing forests for health. Having a view of trees from a hospital window is known to speed up recovery from a number of conditions. If you cannot see any greenspace from your window at home, even looking at flowers in a window box or at indoor plants can evoke a sense of relaxation and connection.

According to Kaplan’s theory of restoration, for attention to be restored our expectations of a trip outdoors also need to be somewhat met. I took recently took a trip to Bempton Cliffs RSPB Reserve  at the weekend and it was amazing to unexpectedly arrive there at 9pm as the sun was setting and get up close to puffins, gannets and kittiwakes, I felt so relaxed and happy!

The next day I was pretty stressed out as I attempted to walk my young son around the reserve. He was tired and something else was needed so instead we took a picnic by the beach and the fresh air, smell of sea salt and playing in the waves was very restoring for all of us. Kaplan’s theory explains why some nature trips are restoring and others fall flat. Being away from our usual day to day routine is an important factor for restoration. So next time you can be out in nature, take a moment to consider what you most need from your venture, you’ll be all the more restored for it.

This blog was originally written in July 2020 when I worked as an Ecotherapy Assistant at St Nicks urban nature reserve in York. It was part of a series exploring some of the latest research and debates in the field of Ecotherapy along with nature inspired tips for how to put the research into practice