Attention Restoration Theory: How Running Outside Can Literally Change Your Life

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According to data from Microsoft, the average person’s attention span went down from a measly 12 seconds in 2002 to an even sadder 8 seconds in 2013. A quick search on Google, however, will show that this study is conspicuously hard to find, while articles ‘busting’ this myth abound. Microsoft might not have all the answers, but they’re not far off the target. Our world is changing, and our minds are changing with it. For example, another study of students in middle school, high school and university showed that the participants who “…accessed Facebook had lower GPAs than those who avoided it.”  A phenomenon called ‘continuous partial attention’ is very real, caused by ‘media-induced task switching’.  A good amount of research has been undertaken on the subject of our capacity for attention in the last few decades. One of the original theories is called the Attention Restoration Theory.

mountains in the distance at sunrise, grassy field in the forefront, maui
Photo by Jasmine Ayla

What Is Attention Restoration Theory?

Attention Restoration Theory, or ART, was theorized by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in their book published in the late 1980s, The Experience of Nature: a Psychological Perspective. ART proposes that our brains have a finite attention span to dedicate to a specific task or stimulus and that by spending time in nature we can restore that capacity for attention. “Directed attention plays an important role in human information processing; its fatigue, in turn, has far-reaching consequences,” says Stephen Kaplan. The theory has subsequently been proven true by various medical resources and bodies of research. 

fading sunset light at a beach, nicaragua
Photo by Jasmine Ayla

Exactly how can a simple run outside make you more effective in your life? There are two main components to the theory.

Voluntary or ‘Directed’ Attention

The stimuli of an urban and/or modern life require an almost constant demand for your attention. This can fatigue your mind by forcing you to continually block out distractions or competing stimuli in order to focus on the task at hand, whatever that may be.

Example A. Walking in a city, you are literally bombarded with things that command your visual attention: advertisements (that are specifically formulated to distract you– think of all the focus groups and research that a big corporation will invest in to create a multi-million dollar ad), street signs, store names, traffic lights, safety when crossing the street, being aware of other people and unconsciously alert to any danger, etc. And that’s just your visual sense. You have to keep an ear out for music, someone calling your name, ambulances, babies crying, police sirens, fire trucks, phone ringing. And there are still all of your other senses to contend with, not to mention morality (constantly differentiating right and wrong between your personal set of principles and daily life), and following social norms (for instance, filtering potentially inappropriate emotions and actions or just trying to eat your dessert with the right spoon).

Example B. At home or at work, you might have your laptop open and phone on full volume. Even when trying to focus on just one thing, with technology, other things will inevitably pop up.  One article can lead to a long internet browsing tangent, social media notifications entice you to check them, you receive texts and calls that you ‘have’ to answer, advertisements materialize that are again specifically made to make you think about and want something other than what you are doing.

Another perfect example is that it’s taken me way longer to write this article than it should because things keep “popping up” and my attention is divided. (I then went for a walk outside, and it did help my focus.)

Involuntary or ‘Effortless’ Attention

Natural settings and environments are rich in landscapes of “softer fascinations,” or things that you can look at with an undemanding attention. This kind of attention is spontaneous and involuntary, and it holds your interest effortlessly. For instance, watching clouds drift across a sky, trees swaying in the wind, sunset and sunrise, a bird in flight, a bubbling brook or stream, and a big one for all the coast dwellers, gazing at the ocean. Being in a natural environment is less taxing to your mind, and furthermore, it’s been proven to be restorative to your focus and attention span.

a placid lake with mountains and clouds in backround, new zealand
Photo by Jasmine Ayla

According to the Kaplans, the natural environment must contain the four following properties or characteristics for it have these lasting restorative effects:

  1. Extent– Being able to be immersed in an environment. Looking out the window won’t cut it.
  2. Being away – Being in an at least somewhat new or changing environment, a kind of escape. So, maybe not somewhere you go every day or are overly familiar with.
  3. Soft fascination – There must be an aspect of the environment that captures your attention effortlessly, giving your voluntary or directed attention a break.
  4. Compatibility – In order to truly appreciate an environment, there must be qualities in the environment that the individual person enjoys. Some may find that for them this is running through a quiet forest. For others, this may be finding their peace surfing on a sunny ocean or climbing to the summit of a mountain.
rushing stream and green mossy rocks, new zealand
Photo by Jasmine Ayla

In Japan, this is old news. “Shinrin-yoku” or “forest-bathing” (spending a prolonged period of time in a forest or natural setting) has long been considered an important type of preventative medicine. It’s the mental equivalent of resting certain muscle sets in between workouts to allow them to repair, heal and replenish in order to strengthen without injury.

Allowing your mind the time to rest and revive on a nature run can have far-reaching positive consequences, and greatly improve your cognitive abilities and ‘flow’ of attention.

Sources

  1. Larry D.Rosen, L.Mark Carrier, Nancy A.Cheever, Facebook and texting made me do it: Media-induced task-switching while studying, Study, May 01, 2013
  2. Bum Jin Park, Yuko Tsunetsugu, Tamami Kasetani, Takahide Kagawa, Yoshifumi Miyazaki1, Environmental Health & Preventative Medicine, Study, Jan 01, 2010
  3. Marc Berman, John Jonides, Stephen Kaplan,, The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature , Study, Dec 01, 2008
  4. Rachel Kaplan, Stephen Kaplan, The Experience of Nature A Psychological Perspective, Jan 01, 1989
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