You don’t have to buy a waterfront home to achieve serenity…you can just take a walk, a deep breath, and observe the natural surroundings. But recent research has shown that having a view from your home, particularly of water, can make a difference in your physical and mental condition and your abilities.
People have long been aware of the calming, rejuvenating effects of nature. Indeed, many of us would agree that we are more relaxed, clear-headed, and cheerful upon returning from a stroll through the woods, the park, or along the shore.
Science has long validated this phenomenon, with study after study demonstrating the power of nature to reduce stress and improve our general wellness.
But despite the breadth of scientific literature alluding to the curative effects of nature, there has been little consensus among scientists regarding the specific mental health benefits it provides, let alone how it provides them. The influence exerted by natural environments upon the human mind has continued to elude our understanding.
A number of recent studies, however, have begun to shine light on the particularities of this influence.
Environmental psychologists exploring how humans experience nature have turned their attention to attention; specifically, to how we direct our attention while amidst nature, and how immersing ourselves in nature influences how we pay attention to things once back in the built environment.
Attention Restoration Theory – a formulation of how the human mind functions within natural, as opposed to manmade, environments – is gaining significant traction within the scientific community.
According to the theory, humans are limited in the amount of attention they are able to pay to objects in their surroundings. Concentrating on the tasks of day-to-day life is a psychologically taxing endeavor, and our finite attentional resources are continually being drained over the course of the day.
In addition to these daily demands, the built environment in which we spend the vast majority of our lives places a tremendous amount of strain on our attentional reserves as well. Artificial environments, so the theory goes, overload our perception with a barrage of stimuli that command and hold our attention.
Consider the example of walking down a busy city street: the roaring engines and frantic honking of cars, crosswalk signals counting down or flashing at us to stop or go, sidewalks cramped with pedestrians hurriedly shouldering past, billboards instructing you what movie to go see or which toothpaste to buy. Even when we arrive home, flipping through the television channels or opening our laptops, we are scarcely able to escape the hyper-stimulation of the modern, interconnected world.
So what happens when our environments bombard us with sensory input that seizes our attention and refuses to let go?
According to Attention Restoration Theory, we eventually begin to experience what is referred to as directed attention fatigue (DAF).
DAF – which occurs when our attentional resources have been depleted – makes it exceedingly difficult for us to focus our attention on any one task for any prolonged amount of time, increases the amount of cognitive mistakes we make in our daily functioning, and can increase our stress levels.
But are all natural environments equally beneficial? Stay tuned for Part Two…the answer may surprise you.