The Peace of Wild Things: Nature and Attention
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound,
in fear of what my life and my children’s life may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water,
and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives
with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
– Wendell Berry
American Farmer, Professor, Novelist and Poet
Throughout human history, people have turned to nature as a source of healing, renewal and contemplation. Each of us can recall encounters with nature that helped us feel revitalized, in touch with our core self, or more whole. Personally, I recollect, as a child, the exhilarating feeling of skiing on peaks of the Rocky Mountains without another sole in sight. The memory of renewal I felt in those moments has stayed with me ever since. There are times when I feel the longing to go for a walk in the forest, or along the shores of the ocean, or to climb a mountain, to reconnect with this natural sense of ease. We all seem to intuitively know that nature has this restorative effect on us.
So, you might ask, what does this have to do with the quality of our attention? It turns out there is a significant relationship between nature and the quality of our attention.
Researchers, doctors Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, at the University of Michigan have been studying a neurological phenomenon called Distraction Attention Fatigue (DAF). DAF occurs when we are faced with many stimuli that are drawing our attention while we are attempting to focus on a task, or going about our daily lives. These may be sounds, visual encounters, or events that attract our attention involuntarily, pulling us into the environment around us. We are constantly bombarded by these small stimuli, which don’t allow us to rest or reflect. In time, the part of our brain that enables us to concentrate gets overworked, as it attempts to inhibit these distractions that are unrelated to the task at hand, and eventually becomes worn out, fatigued.1
DAF can result from a variety of activities which require the brain to inhibit stimulus. Activities such as multitasking, working after a lack of sleep or in an environment with distracting noise, performing concentration-intensive tasks and problem-solving can bring on DAF, as can stress from emergencies or deadlines.
Symptoms of Distraction Attention Fatigue can occur emotionally, cognitively, and interpersonally and may include: heightened irritability: restlessness; short-temperedness; confusion, and/or forgetfulness; feelings of impulsiveness; an inability to plan; impaired judgment; and misperception or missing social cues.2 All of these symptoms are indicative that something is not working right in the inhibitory capability of the brain.
Fortunately, nature has a restorative effect on the symptoms of Distraction Attention Fatigue. Stephen and Rachel Kaplan came up with the concept of Attention Restoration Theory to describe the process of nature healing the worn-out mind. More specifically, when the Directed Attention of an individual becomes fatigued, one of the most effective ways to recover is to find ways of attending that are effortless.3 Nature has a way of grabbing our attention in an involuntary way, that doesn’t require us to make an effort, and allows our directed attention to rest. Exposure to nature lets us feel refreshed, after which we can focus better when the task requires us to do so.
Numerous research studies have validated the claims of the Attention Restoration Theory. Studies have shown that DAF experienced by cancer patients after surgery improves dramatically after 120 minutes per week of exposure to a natural environment.4 Similarly, experiments have found that spending even a few minutes in an urban environment can impair the brain’s ability to focus and manage self-control whereas walking in nature or viewing pictures of nature can improve cognitive functioning.5 Likewise, recent experimentation done at the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory suggests that children with ADHD concentrate significantly better after 20 minutes walking in a city park as compared to the same amount of time walking downtown or in an urban neighborhood.6 In addition, research conducted by Rachel Kaplan found that office workers with windows which provided views of nature – a few trees, landscaping or signs of vegetation – felt less frustrated and more patient, found their job more challenging, expressed greater enthusiasm for it, and reported higher life satisfaction as well as overall health.7 Kaplan concluded that windows provide an excellent means to rest directed attention for a brief moment or for a longer time.
Even a little bit of mother nature has a positive effect on the quality of your attention and can help you be more relaxed, more focused, more in control and happier.
Here are some ways you can rest your Directed Attention:
- Spend time regularly in a natural environment: go to a park; walk along a tree-lined street, on a wooded trail, or at the beach; or do some gardening.
- While at work, take moments to look out a window with a view of nature.
- Get outside periodically during your active day and try the suggestion described in my blog article: Using Your Senses to Calm an Agitated Mind.
- Look at pictures of nature, when you don’t have access to a natural environment.
- Take some time for retreat or solitude in a contemplative setting.
- Get a good night of sleep.
- Kaplan, R.; Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-34939-2.
- Berman, Mark G., and Kaplan, Stephen (2010).“Directed Attention as a Common Resource for Executive Functioning and Self-Regulation.” Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5.1: 43-57.
- Kaplan, S. (1995). “The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 169-182.
- Cimprich, Bernadine PhD, RN, FAAN; Ronis, David L. PhD. (2003). “An Environmental Intervention to Restore Attention in Women With Newly Diagnosed Breast Cancer.” Cancer Nursing, 26(4): 284-292
- Berman, M., Jonides, J., Kaplan, S. (2008). “The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature,” Psychological Science, 19, 1027-1212.
- Faber Taylor, A. & Kuo, F.E. (2009). “Children with attention deficits concentrate better after walk in the park.” Journal of Attention Disorders, 12, 402-409.
- Kaplan, Rachel (1993). “The role of nature in the context of the workplace”. Landscape and urban planning 26 (1): 193–201.
“The natural rhythms of the forest, of the trees and the streams give a sense of uplift and well-being to our minds. They ground us. This provides a very important foundation for the meditation practice. It comes to feel natural to be by yourself and you come to a delight in solitude.”
– Ajahn Jayasaro, The Forest Path
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