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Think Outside the Box, or Better Yet – Restore Outside the Room

By Maggie, Meg, Tara, and Raymond

After studying for a long time, do you feel brain-dead, or unable to focus anymore? This fatigue occurs when your attention, or more specifically, directed attention, is depleted. Directed attention is controlled, effortful attention that helps one inhibit irrelevant information in the environment and select important information. Thus, prolonged use of directed attention usually results in mental fatigue, which in turn decreases performance on affective and cognitive measures (Bratman, Hamilton, & Daily, 2012). Exposure to nature can help one recover from this fatigue. Attention Restoration Theory (ART; Kaplan, 1995) states that natural settings are restorative because they are often extensive, allow us to be detached from our everyday thoughts and worries, fit our needs for relaxation, and, most importantly, capture our attention automatically and effortlessly. These properties are collectively referred to as soft fascination, in contrast to the hard fascination produced by urban environments. That is, unlike urban environments, nature has very few stimuli that may require our directed attention. For instance, in a forest there is no traffic for us to worry about, nor there is any car honk by our ears.

Previous studies (e.g., Atchley, Strayer, & Atchley, 2012; Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008) have found that after exposure to nature, people tend to perform better on cognitive tasks. For example, in one study, participants completed the Remote Associates Task (RAT; Mednick, 1962) either before going on a hike into the wilderness or on the fourth day of the hike (Atchley et al., 2012). The RAT is a creativity task in which participants have to come up with a word that connects three words that are presented on each trial and that appear to be unrelated (Mednick, 1962). For example, if the three presented words are “swiss,” “cottage,” and “cake,” the correct answer will be “cheese.” The RAT is thought to tax attention and higher-order cognition. The results revealed a 50% boost in performance for participants who completed the task while on the hike (Atchley et al., 2012). Thus, it seems that nature starts to show its positive impact on cognition after three days of exposure.

In another study, the Backward Digit Span (BDS; Wechsler, 1974) task was administered before participants went on a walk (pre-test), and then again after the walk (post-test) [Berman et al., 2008]. This task not only measures participants’ short-term memory span but also taps into their abilities to employ directed attention. As for the walk, it lasted 50 to 55 minutes, and participants either went downtown (i.e., an urban setting) or walked in an arboretum (i.e., a natural setting). From pre-test to post-test, performance on the BDS task improved for participants walking in the arboretum, but not for those walking downtown. Therefore, nature can produce positive effects on short-term memory and directed attention even if the exposure is as short as 50 minutes.

Restorative as nature is, it is not always easily accessible. Not everyone can just go for a walk in nature every time they feel brain-dead, or when their attention is depleted. Is there a more efficient method that allows us to take advantage of the benefits of nature, a method that fits better into our everyday lives?

Luckily, nature in smaller, more practical doses, also appears to have benefits. Botanical gardens have been a historically popular place of relaxation for people who are rich and powerful enough to maintain such a thing (Thompson, 2011). In recent years, however, research at hospitals has shown that gardens can be restorative for a slightly larger and less privileged population. Cancer patients that interacted with gardens at the hospitals experienced less emotional distress and pain, and had better long-term prognoses overall (Sherman et al., 2005). Patients also reported less stress, more energy, and more consumer satisfaction at hospitals with gardens. Patients also suggested more green plants and flowing water when they found the gardens insufficient (Whitehouse et al., 2001). Even those who could not visit the gardens in vivo benefited from a window view of the garden during their hospitalization (Sherman et al., 2005).

This last finding gives us hope that we can capitalize on nature in even smaller doses. If a person were confined to a room and did not have the time or ability to walk even in the flowered courtyard outside, how could that person benefit from nature? It turns out that window views to nature are quite effective, not only for hospitalized patients but also for non-patients. For example, students who lived in dormitories with window views to nature performed better on cognitive measures, had more positive affect, and even did slightly better academically (e.g., Tennessen & Cimprich, 1995). Furthermore, students reported higher subjective restoration (Herzog, 2003; as cited by Felstein, 2009) when taking a break by a window that had a view to nature, even if the view was artificial (i.e., a projection or a mural; Felstein, 2009).

Looking at restorative environments through windows can help our brain relax and recover from mental fatigue. However, if the desire of “flying away from the reality” and “leaving me alone” arose, nothing except for a teleporter would help. Whereas teleporters only exist in Star Trek, in our world we have virtual reality (VR), a type of technology that simulates real world experience. Using a “shoebox”-like helmet with a screen inside and Hi-Fi headphones, the technology stimulates visual and auditory systems. The headset is implemented with locomotor sensors, which allow users to interact with the artificial environment in a way similar to how we interact with real world. The multimodal sensory stimulation offers an immersive experience for users that makes people believe it is real. With VR, people can enjoy a moment of disconnectedness from reality without physically removing themselves.

VR makes it possible to scream on a roller coaster without leaving one’s room

The immersive experience offered by VR makes it a potentially feasible tool to help people achieve the goal of mentally restoring in nature. But how effective is VR in restoring attention? Designer Neil Stevenson (2016) answered the question by conducting what is perhaps the first study on the effectiveness of nature scenes simulated by VR in restoring attention. Wearing the VR device and noise-canceling headphones, Stevenson viewed scenes of realistic natural scenes (e.g., sandy beach, forest, Japanese garden) for 20 minutes. During the session, he was allowed to move his head around to explore the scene. After exploring nature in VR, Stevenson reported feeling peaceful and refreshed. Afterward he also did a test similar to the RAT used in Atchley et al. (2012), in which he measured how long it took him to come up with 10 different names for paint colors. The task only took him a few minutes, much faster than he had expected. He noted that the VR device enclosed him in the natural environment by removing all external distractions, and he was able to move around as if he was interacting with a real setting. Thus, a VR session for 20 minutes can be almost as effective in restoring cognition as is hiking for four days. At the end of his blog, Stevenson claimed he would work on building self-served VR set-ups to help designers get restored and regain activity. If you are interested in their project, feel free to follow his blog for their latest progress.

Stevenson is experimenting with VR to get restored

As we hurtle toward an ever more urbanized society, it becomes more disheartening than enlightening to learn that nature is so much better for us than urban settings. However, findings that nature, even in limited doses, can have benefits should have a positive influence on how buildings and urban structures are constructed. Furthermore, advances in virtual reality that have allowed for realistic simulations of nature with similarly real benefits give us hope that, even if and when nature becomes inaccessible to the majority of the world population, nature can still help us restore our cognition. But until then, we can think outside the virtual reality box, and restore ourselves by venturing outside the room.

If you are interested in learning more about the topic, please check out the blog about city’s effects on cognition by Kathryn and the blog by our memory seminar colleagues on beautiful window’s effects on cognition.  


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