Attention Restoration Theory

Professors Rachel and Stephen Kaplan first introduced the idea of attention restoration. Their work in environmental psychology showed that time spent in nature improved concentration and reduced mental fatigue. This came to be known as attention restoration theory (ART).

Our brains have a natural limit on how long we can focus on a specific task. This is called your ‘directed’ or ‘sustained‘ attention.’ The Kaplans proposed that nature provides ‘soft fascination’ which is an effortless form of attention. A true brain break. Have you ever tryed watching a television show or playing a game on your phone to give yourself a break? Then found yourself feeling even more tired or irritable. That is because it is not actually restoring your cognitive resources because it still requires you to direct your attention. 

Attention is a Limited Resource

I was fascinated when I first heard the term attention restoration. Especially with more and more of our small group members coming in with diagnoses of attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Knowing that there are ways to replenish this vital resource is exciting. In my mind, the word restorative always makes me think of a yummy slow yoga class. I usually leave those feeling completely relaxed and comfortable in my body. I wondered, can we do this for the mind as well? 

As it turns out, you do this every day when you sleep. Sleep is the most common form of attention restoration. There have also been studies done on the restorative effects of mindfulness meditation on mental fatigue. (Norris et al., 2018; Fan et al., 2023). The Kaplans showed time spent in nature is a third way when the environment meets the following four requirements. (Kaplan, 1995)

The Four Requirements for a Restorative Environment

1. Being away:

To be restorative, your environment has to change. So sitting at your desk with a view of the mountains while you work on my computer wouldn’t count as being away if that is where you have been focusing on a task. You would physically need to change your environment by going somewhere else. Whereas if you were in a room with no windows, going to a room with a view would also be a change. It just has to be distinct from where you’ve been doing focused work or directing your attention. 

2. Fascinating:

Natural settings can provide an endlessly interesting environment; however, the same restorative effect is not found in urban environments, where there might be new sounds, sights, and interesting objects and people everywhere. The Kaplan’s made a distinction here between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ fascination, where natural environments provide soft fascination which require indirect attention allowing our directed attention to replenish.

3. Extent:

A sense of expansiveness; this can be accomplished by looking at a beautiful vista or walking along a seaside, but it can also come from walking along a path or trail that simply gives you a sense of being part of or connected to something larger.

4. Compatibility:

You are in an environment that is compatible with how you like to interact with it. Some people like to observe nature, some people like to be active in nature, some people like to use nature to learn new skills, and some people like to work with natural elements to create. The point is that the most restorative way to be in nature is the way that is most compatible with you.

When you are dying to get outside but you feel like you can’t take a break or you don’t have time, it’s important to know that a nature break is one of the best ways to resource your attention so you can stay focused and increase your effectiveness. Permission to get outside granted!