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April 16, 2019 Tuesday 11:42:20 AM IST



Environmental psychologists, on the basis of studies and observations, have pointed out the increased incidence of health problems, both mental and physical, due to the faulty interaction by humans with their physical environment. They are of the opinion that biophilia is in our survival strategy, in our DNA (Wilson, 1984). Health problems among children are on the rise, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), autism, dyslexia, asthma and allergies. The health and well-being of our youth is increasingly in jeopardy due to a ‘screen-based’ culture that decreases exposure to the natural world. In his ground-breaking international bestseller, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv (2008) spotlights the alienation of children from the natural world, coining the term nature-deficit disorder and outlining the benefits of a strong nature connection - from boosting mental acuity and creativity to reducing obesity and depression; from promoting health and wellness to simply having fun. The last few decades have seen some empirical work on the idea that natural environments can restore and rejuvenate us, boost our attention, and keep us healthier.  Supported by landmark research, anecdotal evidence, and compelling personal stories,The Nature Principle(Louv, 2015) identifies seven basic concepts that can help us reshape our lives. By tapping the restorative powers of nature, we can promote mental and physical health and wellness; build smarter and more sustainable businesses, communities, and economies; and ultimately strengthen human bonds.

Restorative powers
As the pace of life gets ever faster and busier, the environmental psychologists are on the lookout for ways and means to incorporate more restoration activities into our lives. To that end, experts have researched and laid out some guidelines and information to help us understand how to take advantage of the opportunity nature provides for restoration.  Attention Restoration Theory, or ART, (Kaplans, S. and R. 1989), proposes that exposure to nature is not only enjoyable but can also help us improve our focus and ability to concentrate (White, et al., 2016). ART hypothesizes that nature has the capacity to renew attention after exerting mental energy, for instance, after spending sleepless nights studying for exams, or working tirelessly on a project or assignment. It is a common experience to be refreshed by activities such as a short walk in the woods or by watching a scenic beauty of nature. But what makes these short exposures restorative and refreshing?

Dynamics of Attention Restoration

Stephen and Rachel Kaplan (1989) proposed that there are four cognitive states, or stages of attention, along the way to restoration. They are (i) Clearer head, or concentration; (ii)  Mental fatigue recovery; (iii) Soft fascination, or interest; and (iv)  Reflection and restoration.

 The first stage is characterized by a clearing of the mind. In this stage, the thoughts, concerns, worries, and residual bits of information from whatever was demanding one’s attention are allowed to pass through the mind and fade away. This is not achieved by “pushing” the thoughts away, but by simply letting them flow through and out of the mind naturally.

In the second stage, the real restoration begins; after a task or activity that requires focused and directed attention, it is easy to feel depleted and drained. The mental fatigue recovery stage allows that directed attention to recover and be restored to normal levels.

The third stage allows the individual to be gently distracted and engaged in a low-stimulation activity, which reduces the internal noise and provides a quiet internal space to relax.

In the final stage, evoked by spending a long period of time in an environment that meets all the requirements of a restorative environment, the individual is able to relax, restore their attention, and reflect on their life, priorities, actions, and goals (Han, 2003).The final stage is the deepest and most restorative stage; this is where the most effective restoration takes place. By tapping into the restorative powers of nature, we can promote mental and physical health and wellness.  Nature isn’t a miracle cure for diseases but by interacting with it, spending time in it, experiencing it and appreciating it we can reap the benefits of feeling happier and healthier.

Implications for Daily Living

The proponents of Attention Restoration Theory seek to develop and understand ways of expanding the emotional connection between individuals and the natural world, thereby assisting individuals with developing sustainable lifestyles and remedying alienation from nature. This idea has important implications for the workplace and everyday life; it is critical to examine if spending more time in nature can truly help us solve some of our most pressing modern problems. As it has been proven that natural environments can improve our attention, boost our problem-solving skills, increase positive emotions and reduce the impact of stress, it would be a significant point in favour of incorporating natural settings in the workplace, in colleges and universities, and in urban environments in general. On a more personal level, keep this research in mind the next time you are feeling exhausted, depleted, or simply down. It may be that one of the most easily accessible (and free!) resources of all could cure you of your ailments: just look out the window, view some scenic paintings or photographs, or plan a hike or nature walk the next chance you get. Nature is fundamentally important for our health, well-being and happiness and that ought to be reflected in our education system, in the way we build infrastructure and houses and in how we access and protect green spaces in cities. 

“The future will belong to the nature-smart - those individuals, families, businesses, and political leaders who develop a deeper understanding of the transformative power of the natural world and who balance the virtual with the real. The more high-tech we become, more nature we need”. (R. Louv)

Dr. Jose Cletus Plackal

Licensed clinical psychologist, BET-MRT, Jeevas Centre, Aluva, Kerala.

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