Natural environments are particularly rich in the characteristics necessary for restorative experiences after the fatigue of directed attention has impaired human information processing. This is to say, when focus fatigue and/or stress from a particular task has set in, seeking out natural environments restores our balance. We often say we feel “stressed out” when we are tired, pressured, anxious, exasperated. Feelings of stress can certainly leads to a sense of ineptitude and to being distraught.
We will attempt to look at the link between restorative experience and enhanced effectiveness.
Attention restoration theory provides an analysis of the kinds of experiences that lead to recovery from such fatigue and recognises that restoration of effectiveness is at the mercy of recovery from directed attention fatigue. Sleep provides one approach to recovery but while useful, it is insufficient. In order to rest directed attention, it is necessary to find some other oasis for maintaining one’s focus. What is needed is an alternative mode of focus that renders the use of directed attention temporarily unnecessary.
Fortunately there is a way to meet these requirements and, also fortunately, it is widely available. The process of “soft” focusing requires no effort and is likely to be resistant to fatigue. “Soft” focus – characteristic of certain natural settings – has a special advantage in terms of providing an opportunity for reflection, which can further enhance the benefits of recovering from attention fatigue.
“Getting away” is often used as a shorthand for going to a restorative environment and having restorative experiences. The seaside, the mountains, lakes, streams, forests and meadows are all idyllic places for getting away. However, the sense of being away does not require the setting to be distant. Natural environments that are easily accessible thus offer an important resource for resting one’s directed attention.
Being away, at least in principle, frees one from mental activity that requires directed attention. But continuing to struggle with the old thoughts in a new setting is unlikely to be restorative. Clearly being away involves a conceptual rather than a physical transformation. A new or different environment, while potentially helpful, is not essential. A change in the direction of one’s gaze, or even an old environment viewed in a new way can provide the necessary conceptual shift.
The environment must be rich enough and coherent enough as to constitute a whole other world and provide sufficient scope to engage the mind. It must provide enough to see, experience, and think about so that it takes up a substantial portion of the available room in one’s head.
In the wilderness the “whole other world” feeling comes easily, but it need not entail large tracts of land. Trails and paths in urban parks can be designed so that small areas seem much larger. Japanese gardens use miniaturization to give a sense of other worldliness as well as connectedness.
Nature is certainly well endowed with fascinating objects, as well as offering many processes that people find engrossing. Many of the fascinations afforded by the natural setting qualify as “soft” focus: clouds, sunsets, snow patterns, the motion of leaves in the breeze, bird activities – these readily hold the attention but in an undramatic fashion. Attending to these “soft” focus patterns is effortless and they leave ample opportunity for thinking about other things.
Another requirement for achieving a restorative experience is that there should be compatibility between one’s purpose and one’s inclinations. If, for example, you were to wish to go bush walking and observe some birds or wildlife then the environment must be compatible and therefore provide both bush tracks or paths upon which to walk and be abundant in wildlife habitats.
There are many patterns of relating to the natural setting, such as the predator role (hunting and fishing), the locomotion role (hiking and boating), the domestication of the wild role (gardening, caring for pets), the observation of other animals (bird watching, visiting zoos) survival skills (camping, fire building) and so on. People often approach natural areas with the purposes that these patterns readily fulfil already in mind, thus increasing compatibility.
A compatible environment requires less selectivity and hence less directed attention which allows a restorative experience.
It was in 1865 that Olmsted first coined the idea that human beings are particularly sensitive to the role of “natural scenery” in restoration: it “employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system”.
Attentional fatigue is slower to develop than is stress but it is also slower to recover. However, while stress recovery occurs more rapidly, it also dissipates more rapidly. Recovery from mental fatigue, while a slow process, may also be more durable.
This recovery points to the significant role that directed attention, a key psychological resource, plays in coping with challenges and the role that natural environments play is a powerful one. Experience in natural environments can not only help mitigate stress; it can also prevent it through aiding in the recovery of this essential resource.
This article is an abridged version of “The restorative benefits of nature: toward an integrative framework” by S. Kaplan, Journal of Environmental Psychology (1995) 15, 169-182
Olmsted, F. L. (1865). The value and care of parks. Reprinted in Nash, R. (Ed.) (1968), The American Environment: Readings in the history of conservation. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, pp. 18-24.
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