What is attention restoration theory and why does it matter? (Or perhaps you are feeling too distracted right now to think about that….) In this blog we will uncover what attention restoration theory is, why it matters, how attention is restored and the four key features of a restorative environment.
What is attention restoration theory?
Attention restoration theory was first introduced by Stephen and Rachel Kaplan in the 1980s. The theory suggests that our ability to concentrate is improved after we have either spent time in nature, or after we have spent time looking at scenes from nature, e.g. looking at photographs, books or online.
The benefits, research indicates, extend far beyond improving your focus to complete tasks at home or at work. Time in or with nature also optimises medical outcomes.
The theory rests on previous work that has shown that attention can be divided into two categories:
Involuntary attention; where your attention is focused on a subject that is either very interesting or very important without you making the choice consciously.
Voluntary attention; where your choose to focus your attention on a subject e.g. a book, a lecture, a butterfly.
If you would like to explore this theory in more depth, Kaplan and Kaplan’s book, “The Experience of Nature; A Psychological Perspective” provides a comprehensive overview.
Why does attention restoration theory matter?
When we restore our attention we restore ourselves. Within this natural process we become calmer, less confused and agitated. Understanding becomes easier, and our cognitive abilities are renewed.
It matters because it enables us to return to our optimal levels of being.
We feel better. We perform better, on both a cognitive and a social and emotional level. Consequently, we are able to experience life more fully.
How is attention restored?
Kaplan and Kaplan suggested that there are 4 stages to achieve restoration.
This is achieved by just “letting thoughts pass by” within your mind, noticing them and allowing them to continue on their journey.
Mental recovery occurs when your mind is given the opportunity to “breathe”, or “just be” following a period of focused directed attention.
Soft fascination helps mental recovery as your mind is engaged in a gentle activity that does not provide too much stimulation or drain you mentally e.g. gardening, painting, sewing, tidying a Zen garden. The activity provides diverts your mind from the demanding and stimulating task, and offers opportunities for calm and quiet reflection.
Deep restoration occurs when you find yourself in a natural restorative environment. This type of environment enables you to restore your attention fully by enabling you to relax and enjoy the accompanying mental space. In this way, you are able to gain a fresh perspective that empowers you to consider your aims, your achievements and your priorities with greater clarity.
What makes an environment restorative?
Kaplan and Kaplan list 4 key features.
“To be away is to be psychologically detached from your present worries and demands, and distracted from the environment that is draining your attention and energy.” (Daniel, 2014).
When soft fascination occurs, your attention is gently held in a way that allows your thoughts to naturally turn inwards.
The concept of extent relates to the environment enabling you to become totally absorbed and relaxed there. Whilst it may be a new location its features are familiar to you, providing comfort and security. There will be no unexpected surprises.
The environment must feel “in harmony” with you. A restorative environment is one that you choose for no other reason than because you want to be there. A restorative environment brings you joy just by being there.
To quote Gary Snyder, “Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.”