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Nature: The Natural Adderall

e9cab5788e12f4abd64a03a1739df4e2By Erin, Michaela, & McKayla


Having a hard time paying attention? Can’t remember all the definitions? Finals at Colby are no walk in the park. Exam week requires a lot of focused attention in order to study, write 15 page papers, and sit down for three-hour examinations. We all have gotten to that point where we feel like we can’t focus or direct our attention anymore. Research has shown that this happens when we overuse the brain’s inhibitory attention mechanisms and can no longer inhibit distractions (Kaplan, 1995). The person walking into the library, the pen tapping on the desk, the music coming from down the hall, all prevent us from maintaining focus on the task at hand. We have all suffered from directed attention fatigue. But what if a walk in the park could actually restore this fatigue and give you an edge academically?

Prior research allows us to infer that spending time outside does have the potential to help you sail through exam week by increasing attention! This increase in attention can translate into better memory as they are closely connected. It is the things we devote our attention to that get incorporated into our memory. Without attention, we wouldn’t be able to form memories. Therefore, the more attention we have to give to things, the better memory we will have for them.

Attention Restoration Theory, first introduced in 1995 by Kaplan (1995), proposed that nature has potential cognitive benefits because it fulfills four important criteria required for restoring your directed attention: soft fascination, extent, being away, and compatibility. The most important of the four criteria is soft fascination, which piggybacks William James’ idea of direct versus indirect attention. Direct attention requires more mental effort than indirect attention; thus, directed attention is more prone to fatigue. Kaplan proposed that nature allows the brain to recover from overused, fatigued, directed attention. Soft fascination occurs when attention is grabbed without extreme cognitive effort. Because nature elicits soft fascination, it allows the mind to recover from fatigue.IMG_2165_1 Urban environments require a lot of directed attention because tasks such as crossing streets or avoiding traffic require active awareness, inhibiting other non-essential stimuli. Therefore, urban environments do not fulfill the four essential criteria and are not considered restorative.

There is data supporting the benefit of a walk in nature on attention. Previous research conducted at the University of Michigan has validated Kaplan’s attention restoration theory, demonstrating that a 50-55 minute walk in nature positively impacts cognition. This study revealed better scores on attention and short-term memory compared to walking in an urban environment (Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008). Other studies have also shown that people who spent time in the wilderness compared to people who spent time in urban areas performed significantly better on proof reading, a task requiring considerable amounts of directed attention (Hartig, Mang, & Evans, 1991).

The benefits don’t end with improved focus. Not only can exposure to nature help restore directed attention, but it can also spark creativity! After four days in nature, adults on several Outward Bound trips did 50% better on the Remote Association Test, a measure of creative problem solving, compared to those who took the test before the trip began (Atchley, Strayer, & Atchley, 2012). These findings suggest that full immersion in nature as well as removal from technology results in better creative problem solving. Certainly by page 13 of that term paper, we are all looking for a spark of creativity. To read more about extended time in nature click here or here

You are probably putting your jacket on and heading out for that restorative walk in the arboretum. But how long do you have to be in nature or look at nature imagery to acquire these benefits? After all, you still have hours of studying to go. Shorter exposure to nature has provided contradictory findings. In a follow up study at the University of Michigan, 10 minute viewing of nature pictures resulted in better attention and short-term memory performance than viewing urban images suggesting that this shorter exposure to nature also resulted in attention restoration. (Berman et al., 2008). However, another study with a similar study design was unable to find similar benefits from short exposures to viewing images of nature (Emfield & Neider, 2014). While these studies do not provide clarity regarding how long you need to spend time in nature to receive cognitive benefits, it might be worth your while to explore nature until you feel like you are regaining focus and motivation.

905720_10156292972740245_1613082604182796256_oDon’t think you have time to get outside and walk around in nature? Try opening the blinds in your room. A study conducted at a midwestern college wanted to see if the view from dormitory windows influenced directed attention (Tennessen & Cimprich, 1995). Their study revealed that students with natural views from their dorm room did significantly better on attentional tests than students with less natural and more man made looking views from their dorm room. Who knew that those big windows with views of the woods in Hillside could have such positive benefits? But don’t worry, if you don’t have a natural view from your window, you can make up for it by how you decorate. A study conducted in office spaces found that a lack of a natural view can be compensated for by bringing natural images and objects into the office (Bringslimark, Hartig, & Patil, 2011; Kweon, Ulrich, Walker, & Tassinary, 2008). This same concept can be applied to a dorm room. If you don’t have a view of trees and grass but still want to reap the benefits of nature, try buying a potted plant or hanging a poster of a beautiful landscape on your wall.

Another college-based study was conducted to investigate the impact of plants in a classroom on course performance and course evaluations of the course and professor (Doxey, Waliczek, & Zajicek, 2009). They found that students who took a class with plants in the room didn’t necessarily perform better but did view the professor and course in a more positive light. While one might have expected students to perform better with plants in the classroom, it is unlikely the classroom was filled with sufficient soft fascination in the midst of an intense lecture. With that said, it is good to know that a mere plant can improve your outlook on a quantum physics lecture.

So does all this research mean that everyone should be studying on Miller lawn? Maybe, but maybe not. As much as547147_10152766224675245_101209462_n nature has the potential to benefit attention and cognitive performance, there are many other factors that play a role as well. If you are going to study in a very public natural place where students often walk, frisbees soar through the air, and bicyclists ride by, you may find that these distractions fatigue your directed attention more than if you were in the quiet library. Further, the exposure to nature is supposed to be done in the absence of using directed attention. All the benefits of nature may be lost due to too much stimulation on Miller lawn.

There is a potential pitfall to learning while being surrounded by nature. Context-dependent memory plays a large role in being able to later retrieve information from memory (Godden & Baddeley, 1975). Context-dependent memory refers to the fact that it is easier to retrieve certain memories if you are trying to remember them in the same setting where you learned the information. For example, if you have forgotten where you left your favorite jacket after going to three different parities on Saturday night, you may utilize context-dependent memory and retrace your steps to each of the parties you went to in order to trigger your lapse in memory. This applies to studying because normally exams are taken inside academic buildings. This means that if you spend all your time studying outdoors, you may have a harder time retrieving the information later when sitting in a testing room. It is important to weigh this theoretical disadvantage with the benefits of being in the glorious outdoors.

There is also a potential upside of mixing up where you do your studying. The more cues you have for a memory, the easier it will be to retrieve them later (Brown & Craik, 2000). This is because you have more memory cues, or traces, that can be accessed at a given time. If one memory trace is unavailable, you will have backups to rely on. Cues are established by forming a memory in different settings and states. This means that studying in different environments will give you more chances of being able to successfully retrieve the correct answer on a test.

What does this ultimately mean? It means that studying in nature will be helpful in creating additional memory cues and has the potential to restore directed attention, but it should not be the only study environment you consider! So grab your Nikes, put on your fleece jacket, and head out to the arboretum. If you have brain drain and lost your focus, a stroll through nature has the potential to restore your fatigue and allow you to regain focus. It may also get those creative juices flowing. If it is sub zero out and you can’t bring yourself to snowshoe, try buying a plant or two and putting that poster of the jewel colored waters of Aruba on the wall. Mix it up a little too; study on the lawn by Johnson Pond, let your eyes wander across the pond, and remember to look out the window and contemplate the budding trees. While we can’t guarantee that you will ace your exams, it certainly may increase your chances!



Atchley, R. A., Strayer, D. L., & Atchley, P. (2012). Creativity in the wild: Improving creative reasoning through immersion in natural settings. PLOS ONE, 7(12), 1-3. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0051474

Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19(12), 1207. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02225.x

Bringslimark, T., Hartig, T., & Patil, G. G.. (2011). Adaptation to windowlessness: Do office workers compensate for a lack of visual access to the outdoors? Environment and Behavior, 4, 469-487. doiI: 10.1177/0013916510368351

Brown, S.C., & Craik, F.I.M. (2000). Encoding and retrieval of information. In E. Tulving & F. I. M. Craik (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of memory (pp. 93-107). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Doxey, J. S., Waliczek, T. M., & Zajicek, J. M. (2009). The impact of interior plants in university classrooms on student course performance and on student perceptions of the course and instructor. HortScience, 44(2), 384-391.

Emfield, A. G., & Neider, M. B. (2014). Evaluating visual and auditory contributions to the cognitive restoration effect. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1-11. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00548

Godden, D. R., & Baddeley, A. D. (1975). Context-dependent memory in two natural environments: On land and underwater. British Journal of Psychology, 66(3), 325-331. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8295.1975.tb01468.x

Hartig, T., Mang, M., & Evans, G. W. (1991). Restorative effects of natural environment experiences. Environment and behavior, 23(1), 3-26. doi: 10.1177/0013916591231001

Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15(3), 169-182. doi: 10.1016/0272-4944(95)90001-2

Kweon, B.-S., Ulrich, R. S., Walker, V. D., & Tassinary, L. G. (2008). Anger and stress: the role of landscape posters in an office setting. Environment and behavior, 40(3), 355-381. doi: 10.1177/0013916506298797

Tennessen, C. M., & Cimprich, B. (1995). Views to nature: Effects on attention. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15(1), 77-85. doi: 10.1016/0272-4944(95)90016-0

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