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Attention Restoration Theory

Updated: Jun 1




View of nature in June, a pound and a dog drinking from  the water
Cognitive restoration through nature has many benefits, including reducing stress and mental fatigue. Here, Tarka and I, in June last year, as we were exploring the marshes of Lac du Coeur (Thanks A & G).

What is Attention Restoration Theory (ART)? And how can it support your creativity?


This theory suggests that exposure to nature is not only enjoyable, but can also help us improve our focus. Attention restoration is based on these cognitive benefits: clearing the mind of residual noise from daily tasks, recovering from attentional fatigue, being able to think about problems and reflect.


This theory was developed by Stephen and Rachel Kaplan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a period characterized by rapid technological advances and ever-increasing indoor entertainment. As people - and especially children - spent more and more time indoors, concerns about the lack of time in nature grew. Well, it hasn't gotten any better since. ART is gaining popularity as several studies corroborate its findings.


Attention, as it is generally understood, is related to a set of processes that allow us to perform many cognitive tasks such as planning, analysis, memorization, problem solving, selection and synthesis of information, etc.


Two forms of attention

Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, both researchers in environmental psychology, have distinguished in their theory of attention restoration (ART) the following 2 forms of attention:

  • Directed attention (also called "sustained" or "voluntary" attention).

  • Undirected attention (also called "spontaneous" or "involuntary" attention).

Directed attention is an essential but limited mental resource that allows us to remain focused on a task requiring significant effort for a long period of time, while inhibiting external or internal stimuli (i.e. our thoughts). The trick to restoring attentional capacity is to use undirected attention, a kind of floating attention that is triggered by contact with nature.


In her chapter Nature et restauration psychologique, Barbara Bonnefoy describes the environments that are conducive to the deployment of involuntary attention as follows: Certain environments, by soliciting less directed attentional resources, would have a restorative or reconstituting power and would allow them to be reconstructed. For Kaplan (1995), contact with natural environments (natural parks, gardens, forests, beaches, urban parks, but also green plants on a windowsill, a view of trees) is a means of temporarily rendering unnecessary the deployment of sustained, directed or selective attention, and thus allowing it to take a rest. These natural environments can thus counter the attentional deficit, but under four conditions in the relationship to the environment (Kaplan 1995): fascination, being-away, extent and compatibility.


Fascination is central to ART. It refers to a form of attention that allows one to sustain one's attention without effort. The fascinating character of an object or an environment indeed offers the possibility to the individual to rest his sustained attention by replacing it with an attention that does not require any particular concentration. Soft fascination (watching the snow fall, the trees, listening to birds singing, smelling plants, feeling connected to nature in a natural space) is a form of fascination that has the advantage of promoting reflection while encouraging the recovery of attention.


Being-Away refers to the physical or virtual distance from the aspects of daily life. This escape allows one to feel elsewhere, to get away from one's preoccupations, it frees the individual from the mental activity requiring sustained attention. The escape is not necessarily geographical (even if this aspect can amplify the feeling), but psychological: a simple change of perspective on the part of the individual can allow the escape.


Extent refers to a setting that has sufficient content to engage the mind for a long enough period to allow directed attention to rest. It also refers to the balance between the ease of use and the richness of an environment. Indeed, the environment must be rich enough to generate fascination and offer the opportunity to contemplate, experience, or reflect.


Finally, compatibility represents the links and interactions between the environment and the individual: a compatible environment responds to the individual's needs without demanding attention. The individual can carry out his actions and accomplish his goals without the environment preventing him from doing so.


These four qualities of the relationship to the environment are interdependent and influence each other. An environment can, moreover, meet one or more of these properties without being called restorative.


Other contexts, same effect

Interestingly, you don't even have to go on a month-long trek to restore yourself. Simply looking out your window at trees, listening to bird recordings or watching nature clips can help. Other studies have shown that restorative places like monasteries or museums provide similar benefits.


Rx: Forest bathing

Did you know that as of February, doctors in four provinces (B.C., Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario) in Canada can now prescribe a forest bath if you are depressed or anxious? The program is called PaRx and it was developed in conjunction with Park Canada.

And since May, Quebec has a similar program, Prescri-Nature, and you don't even have to go to a doctor.

"After 20 minutes of exposure to nature, even if it's just in a park surrounded by a few trees, heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels - the stress hormone - go down," Dr. Bradette details. 

"Some say it may even delay the onset of dementia in older people," adds Dr. Pétrin-Desrosiers. "In children with ADHD, for example, a 20-minute walk in a park can be equivalent to a dose of Ritalin." (Source: 24heures

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