Attention Restoration Theory (ART) postulates that when a person is experiencing mental fatigue or is exhibiting concentration inconsistency, then they can improve their attention by spending some significant time in nature or looking at the scenic phenomena off nature. The theory is founded on the inability of the brain to focus on a single task or specific stimulus for an extended period. Therefore, people who are exposed to long hours of concentration such as scholars face the problem of directed attention fatigue, which requires a shift in focus to rejuvenate the mental attentiveness.
Figure 1: Nature Offers Voluntary Attention Restoration (Source: Peakeiro)
History of the Theory
Attention Restoration Theory (ART) is the masterpiece of Stephen Kaplan, who evaluated the impact of directed attention fatigue on individuals who require long hours of constant concentration such as scholars. The theory was first presented in 1989 and later in 1995 where more profound evidence was incorporated. The foundational ideas that led to the existence and advancement of this theory came from the work that Rachel and Steve Kaplan had included in the book The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. In 1995, Kaplan published research that elaborated the restorative advantages of nature by giving a review of the limitations associated with directed attention fatigue. Worth pointing out is that currently advanced studies in medicine and education have been enhanced through the postulates of the theory, which have been tested and proved (Ohly et al., 2016; Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008).
Principles of the Theory
Attention Restoration Theory is based on several principles and conditions. According to Kaplan (1995), four significant conditions must be fulfilled for an environment to provide the required restorative power of nature that an exhausted brain needs among individual experiencing directed attention fatigue. While nature is considered essential for directed attention fatigue, it should be clear that the natural environment that an individual is exposed to should meet specific conditions (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). The following list forms the fundamental characteristics of a restorative environment.
Restorative environments should be fascinating: Kaplan (1995) points out that nature is engrossing and associated with appealing objects; therefore, they can be used to capture attention quickly.
The restorative environment should have the characteristic of being away: Kaplan (1995) explained that nature has essential insights that provide an escape from the regular mental routine thus reviving attention.
Extent: The theory postulates that restorative benefits from nature come from the extent aspect of the environment, which does not necessarily mean the size dimension but the comprehensive and detailed aspect of nature.
The natural environment is linked to compatibility: The theory ascertains the existence of segregation between the natural component of the environment and human tendencies which eventually link up when one is walking through or staring at nature.
Figure 1: The Healthcare Garden: The Perspective of Attention Restoration Theory (Source: Science Direct)
The four principles operate interactively to offer a restorative effect on attention by encouraging the involuntary attention while the voluntary attention is recovering. Nevertheless, some proponents have been keen to criticize the extent to which the Attention Restorative Theory principles fails to point the specific aspects of involuntary or voluntary attention that are influenced by nature (Ohly et al., 2016).
Tools and Research Methods Used to Capture the Theory or Concepts
Attention Restoration Theory has been tested and proved using the span tests. In this case, the memory and attentiveness of individuals have been measured to determine the impact of nature on attention (Kaplan, 1995). Span tests include the cases where individuals are asked to repeat the list of items or elements in a specific order immediately after they have heard, read, or seen the list. The complexity of the test is increased by including a backward order, skipping or omitting, and recognizing an item at specific intervals. In most cases, digits have been used in span tests. Different approaches such as the use of Digital Span Forward, Trail Making Test B, and Digital Span Backward have been used to test for the validity of Attention Restorative Theory and the associated principles (Ohly et al., 2016).
Moreover, for efficient and reliable experimental outcomes, the use of control groups has enhanced the nature of test results associated with this theory. In this case, a group that is not exposed to the restorative natural environment is equally subjected to the span tests to determine the actual difference. Such a move has enabled scholars to draw a significant difference, and the magnitude of correlation that exists for individual exhibiting directed attention fatigue and are exposed to the restorative environment and those who face the same limitation but are not exposed to nature (Ohly et al., 2016).
Worth pointing out is that the span tests and the use of control experiments have been designed to determine the extent to which attention and memory are impacted when an individual is exposed to nature. However, drawing relationships and establishing correlations has seen scholars using other research techniques to compare span test results from different groups. For example, a comparative cross-sectional analysis by Taylor, Kuo, and Sullivan (2002) examined the attention disparity between children living in apartments with green surrounding and their counterparts who lived in congested settings lacking access to the green environment. Jonides et al. (2008) argued that the use of different research approaches and attention measurement strategies could present a comprehensive perspective of the Attention Restorative Theory.
Examples of Research Using this Theory
The Attention Restoration Theory has been applied in different areas based on the scholarly evidence ascertaining the validity of the postulates linked to the theory. The evaluation of how a change in environment enhances attention has been used in health intervention for diseases such as in the management of Attention Disorder to help those affected to improve their inattention and impulsivity (Taylor & Kuo, 2009). Other conditions where the postulates presented in this theory have been applied include depression, anxiety, and obesity management.
Moreover, city planning and setting of institutions have embarked on green landscaping to improve the experience residents and students respectively. Smart cities are associated with secluded gardens for excursions where people spend some quiet time. In a study that investigated how clergy could manage their exhaustion and improve their attention Gill, Packer, and Ballantyne (2018) found out that spending time in a restorative natural environment could enhance the attention levels among the clergy. The same applies to learners and residents in an urban community.
Furthermore, the cognitive abilities among children have been managed through revitalizing the classroom experiences. Setting designs that mimic the nature enhances the attention levels among learners when the voluntary attention is fatigued. Having breaks and encouraging nature walks has been linked to improved cognitive acuity (Taylor & Kuo, 2009). All these are areas where the Attention Restoration Theory is being applied.
Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19:1207-12.
Gill, C., Packer, J. & Ballantyne, R. (2018). Applying Attention Restoration Theory to Understand and Address Clergy's Need to Restore Cognitive Capacity. J Relig Health, 1 - 14.
Jonides, J., Lewis, R. L., Nee, D. E., Lustig, C., Berman, M. G., & Moore, K. S. (2008). The mind and brain of short-term memory. Annual Review of Psychology, 59:193-224.
Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15(): 169 - 182.
Kaplan, R. & Kaplan, S. (1989). The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. Cambridge University Press.
Ohly, H., White, M. P., Wheeler, B. W., Bethel, A., Ukoumunne, O. C., Nikolaou, V., & Garside, R. (2016). Attention Restoration Theory: A systematic review of the attention restoration potential exposure to natural environments. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, 19(7): 305 - 343.
Taylor, A. F. & Kuo. F. E. (2009). Children with attention deficits concentrate better after a walk in the park. Journal of Attention Disorders, 12:402-09.
Taylor, A. F., Kuo, F. E., & Sullivan, W. C. (2002). Views of nature and self-discipline: Evidence from inner city children. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 22:49-63.
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