Take a hike!

How attention restoration theory shows that nature sharpens the mind.
Jonathan Maas | September 2011 Issue
When he gets to school in the morning, he’s hyper. Mentally restless, he jiggles his arms and legs, fiddles with his keys, pens and anything else his hands can reach. The reason for his jumpy state is that the route from home to school—over embankments, along the river and through the meadows—ends in an industrial park. As a result, 16-year-old Timo van Hardeveld is bombarded by traffic noise and other things that overstimulate him. By contrast, the trip home ends in a rural setting, so he arrives calm.
A year ago, Timo was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He has trouble concentrating and is only able to focus briefly on his schoolwork before his mind wanders. The solution is for Timo to take time outside in the vegetable garden his parents planted just for him. He is growing all kinds of things in his garden: edible flowers, apple and pear trees, blackberries and grapes. Gardening calms him down and relaxes his mind, quieting his fidgety arms and legs and enabling him to tackle his homework with a renewed sense of concentration.
You don’t have to have ADHD to experience the positive effects of nature: Getting a breath of fresh air empties your mind, and a walk in the woods provides new inspiration. Green is good; it helps us concentrate. Psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan, who teach at the University of Michigan, have been telling this story since the late 1980s. At that time, the couple introduced the so-called attention restoration theory, which asserts that you can regenerate your concentration, as it were, by taking refuge in nature.
Since then, many studies have supported the Kaplans’ theory, including research by environmental psychologist Nancy Wells. Over time, she monitored several children aged 7 to 12 who had moved to a greener, less urban area.
She established that the “natural elements in their own direct living environment—particularly trees—made for better concentration.”
In another study, Stephan Mayer, a psychology professor at the University of Oberlin in Ohio, sent a group of 65 psychology students to consider a solution to a “moderately serious problem.”
“This wasn’t something trivial, nor was it as big as getting your divorced parents back together,” he explains. Half the group was told to retreat into nature while the other half was sent to a quiet place in the city. When they returned, members of the nature group said they felt better; they were also more effective in reflecting on the problem than their city-bound peers. Moreover, a University of Illinois study showed you don’t even have to go into the woods to improve your concentration; just having a view of greenery helps.
We’re talking about something that poets and painters knew intuitively 1,000 years ago and that science is just now proving. For a better memory and sharper attention, the best thing you can do is take a walk in the woods.
Of course we’ve all long known instinctively that nature is good for us, Mayer admits, adding that the really interesting thing to study is why. What is it about Timo van Hardeveld’s apple and pear trees that help revive his attention and make him feel better and keener?
According to the Kaplans, there are two kinds of attention: one is focused and involuntary; the other is free floating. You need focused attention when you’re working or studying. You must maintain your focus by keeping an eye on your objective, not allowing yourself to be distracted, avoiding unnecessary stimuli. All this requires energy and leads to “attention fatigue” or stress.
A study conducted in 2004 by the Dutch National Health Council demonstrated how this kind of stress affects your body. It slows your heart rate and breathing while stimulating your digestion in an effort to bring your energy supply up to the required level. But this combination lowers your concentration and compromises your competence and effectiveness. To recover from this stress, the Kaplans say it is important to expose ourselves to an environment that naturally and effortlessly draws our attention: nature.
Says Mayer: “This exposure to nature restores our cognitive functions, enabling us to concentrate better.” His research shows this is mainly due to the connection we experience with nature. “People want to belong to something,” he explains. “Not only to other people, like friends and family, but to nature as well.”

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Take a hike!

How attention restoration theory shows that nature sharpens the mind.
Jonathan Maas | September 2011 Issue
When he gets to school in the morning, he’s hyper. Mentally restless, he jiggles his arms and legs, fiddles with his keys, pens and anything else his hands can reach. The reason for his jumpy state is that the route from home to school—over embankments, along the river and through the meadows—ends in an industrial park. As a result, 16-year-old Timo van Hardeveld is bombarded by traffic noise and other things that overstimulate him. By contrast, the trip home ends in a rural setting, so he arrives calm.
A year ago, Timo was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He has trouble concentrating and is only able to focus briefly on his schoolwork before his mind wanders. The solution is for Timo to take time outside in the vegetable garden his parents planted just for him. He is growing all kinds of things in his garden: edible flowers, apple and pear trees, blackberries and grapes. Gardening calms him down and relaxes his mind, quieting his fidgety arms and legs and enabling him to tackle his homework with a renewed sense of concentration.
You don’t have to have ADHD to experience the positive effects of nature: Getting a breath of fresh air empties your mind, and a walk in the woods provides new inspiration. Green is good; it helps us concentrate. Psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan, who teach at the University of Michigan, have been telling this story since the late 1980s. At that time, the couple introduced the so-called attention restoration theory, which asserts that you can regenerate your concentration, as it were, by taking refuge in nature.
Since then, many studies have supported the Kaplans’ theory, including research by environmental psychologist Nancy Wells. Over time, she monitored several children aged 7 to 12 who had moved to a greener, less urban area.
She established that the “natural elements in their own direct living environment—particularly trees—made for better concentration.”
In another study, Stephan Mayer, a psychology professor at the University of Oberlin in Ohio, sent a group of 65 psychology students to consider a solution to a “moderately serious problem.”
“This wasn’t something trivial, nor was it as big as getting your divorced parents back together,” he explains. Half the group was told to retreat into nature while the other half was sent to a quiet place in the city. When they returned, members of the nature group said they felt better; they were also more effective in reflecting on the problem than their city-bound peers. Moreover, a University of Illinois study showed you don’t even have to go into the woods to improve your concentration; just having a view of greenery helps.
We’re talking about something that poets and painters knew intuitively 1,000 years ago and that science is just now proving. For a better memory and sharper attention, the best thing you can do is take a walk in the woods.
Of course we’ve all long known instinctively that nature is good for us, Mayer admits, adding that the really interesting thing to study is why. What is it about Timo van Hardeveld’s apple and pear trees that help revive his attention and make him feel better and keener?
According to the Kaplans, there are two kinds of attention: one is focused and involuntary; the other is free floating. You need focused attention when you’re working or studying. You must maintain your focus by keeping an eye on your objective, not allowing yourself to be distracted, avoiding unnecessary stimuli. All this requires energy and leads to “attention fatigue” or stress.
A study conducted in 2004 by the Dutch National Health Council demonstrated how this kind of stress affects your body. It slows your heart rate and breathing while stimulating your digestion in an effort to bring your energy supply up to the required level. But this combination lowers your concentration and compromises your competence and effectiveness. To recover from this stress, the Kaplans say it is important to expose ourselves to an environment that naturally and effortlessly draws our attention: nature.
Says Mayer: “This exposure to nature restores our cognitive functions, enabling us to concentrate better.” His research shows this is mainly due to the connection we experience with nature. “People want to belong to something,” he explains. “Not only to other people, like friends and family, but to nature as well.”

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