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Archive for November, 2012

If you were in this scene, standing on the rock shelf in the foreground, it’s a safe bet that you would be feeling relaxed and mentally refreshed.

This spot is an example of what Stephen and Rachel Kaplan would call a “restorative environment” because it:

  • gives us the feeling of being “away from it all” or at a distance from daily life – remarkably the spot is only a kilometre or so from the southern suburbs of Sydney,
  • is full of “fascination”, with things that attract our attention without being exhausting
  • is easy to understand because it “fits in” with what we already know about natural environments, and
  • allows us to engage in activities that we would want to do there like walking, swimming, photographing or just looking.

Time spent in such a spot helps us to put our mental house in order – clarifying and ordering thoughts and reflecting on personal concerns, goals and priorities. It also relieves the concentrated attention fatigue that is an inescapable part of urban life. From the moment we wake to when we fall to sleep at night, we constantly have to pay attention in order to cope and even survive.

The Kaplans have developed their Attention Restoration Theory (ART) to explain why natural scenes are superior to any other in restoring concentration, increasing mental energy and reducing the stress of information overload. “Fascination” is a key concept in the theory. We are “fascinated” when we find ourselves involuntarily paying attention to something. The mental “muscles” we use when we force ourselves to pay attention or concentrate are not involved when we are fascinated. When we are looking at a scene like the one in the photo, we are giving our senses and brain the chance to recover from attention fatigue.

Why we respond to nature with fascination is not known for certain but it seems likely that evolution has prewired our brains to absorb information about nature easily. In contrast our brains have to work harder where information from “non-natural” environments, like cities and towns, is concerned.

While visiting “real” nature is the ideal way to find relation and restoration, it is not the only option. There are “restorative environments” in all sorts of places, parks and gardens, for example. Here’s one of the places I go in my own garden for a spot of R & R (when it’s not being used by other members of the family, of course).

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