Spending time in nature provides us with an opportunity to rest, reflect, and restore ourselves. Whether we are looking at a sunset, gazing at the ocean or the mountains, sitting in the park or staring out the window, nature helps our brains to relax.
Think about how many times you have been overwhelmed or feeling down and how just looking at nature has shifted your mind in some way. I am sure each of us has a story that speaks to how nature helped us to improve our state of mind.
The commonality of this experience speaks to the cognitive benefits of nature. Among the theories that have emerged over the last several decades explaining why and how we benefit from nature, Attention Restoration Theory speaks specifically to how valuable nature is for our brains.
In a nutshell, Attention Restoration Theory, or ART, proposes that exposure to nature is not only enjoyable but can also help us improve our focus and ability to concentrate (Ohly, White, Wheeler, Bethel, Ukoumunne, Nikolaou, & Garside, 2016).
Our modern urban environments are so busy and complex that we easily fall victim to directed attention fatigue. Directed attention is when you pay attention to something specific. Your brain’s ability to pay attention to something specific gets worn down over time by other distractions.
For example, you are having a conversation with a friend and a car alarm goes off and you get distracted over time by the car alarm. Or, it’s the end of the day and you feel really worn out and unfocused. Having been barraged with sights and smells and sounds over a long day, your brain is fatigued.
If our brain is in an extended period of concentration, our cognitive capacity becomes depleted. We get brain overload. The more direct attention fatigue that you experience, the more stressed and irritable you become.
Attention Restoration Theory states that nature does not require the same level of directed attention and therefore we feel refreshed and happier in nature. If we look at nature, we can restore our cognitive capacity by letting our brain rest and replenish.
Attention Restoration theory is a good argument for spending time in or around a restorative natural environment in order to reduce or recover from stress.
As Director of Programs, Elizabeth Nelson brings her B.S. in Public Health, her extensive work with trauma survivors of domestic and sexual abuse, and her own experiences of the positive connection and health benefits of time spent in nature into the Parkscriptions program at Recreation Northwest. She is a certified Wilderness First Responder. She has a broad range of experience running her own business and working in nonprofit and government organizations.