Attention Restoration Theory: Was Thoreau onto Something?
We need the tonic of wildness…We can never have enough of nature.
- Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods
Little did Thoreau know that these words would ring so true in the context of a psychological theory. Yet for over 20 years, psychologists have been gathering evidence for Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which purports that exposure to nature can improve creativity and replenish cognitive reserves.
We didn't use to talk much about cognitive reserve because, well, we didn't have to worry about depleting them. "Cognitive" means all-things-thinking, and "reserves" suggest that we have brain power to draw upon even when our minds are taxed.
And oh, are they taxed in our current society. Research has shown that overuse of technology, including computers, smartphones, tablets, and iPods literally drains our brains of that cognitive energy we need to come up with creative solutions to problems and to feel alert and focused.
Yet there may be a solution. Decades of ART research indicates that taking a hike, walking through a park, or even viewing nature scenes can restore those cognitive reserves and help us function better. For instance, one study showed that post-surgery patients who recovered in a room with a window overlooking trees recovered faster than those who recovered in a room with a window showing a brick wall.
The latest study on ART was conducted by researchers at the University of Kentucky and the University of Utah. In this relatively small experiment, a group of about 50 people took a creativity test before and after participating in an Outward Bound program, which entails a week-long wilderness expedition focusing on self-growth. No technology is allowed during the program, including computers, phones, or television.
Interestingly, participants' creativity scores increased by 50% over the course of the study. The researchers concluded that exposure to nature was responsible for the increase in creativity. This may be true - at least partially - but I can't help but wonder if the absence of technology had more to do with the results than the actual exposure to the outdoors?
Granted, a presence of nature and an absence of technology often go hand in hand, but not necessarily. In other words, I would like to see another study compare participants who give up technology for a few days in the woods to participants who give up technology for a few days in their own homes. If there was a difference in scores, we would know that the setting has an influence on creativity. A related study could compare a wilderness group without technology with a wilderness group that was allowed to use such gadgets. Again, if there was a difference in scores, we could surmise that the use (or non-use) of technology made a difference.
Regardless, it certainly can't hurt to get out and commune with nature now and then. Another interesting piece of ART research has found that those with the most depleted cognitive reserves yield the most benefit from a nature respite, but they are also the ones least likely to get out and take that respite.
Since I'm sitting at my laptop, immersed in technology as I write this, I feel the sudden need to make a New Year's resolution to channel Thoreau a bit more in 2013.
Atchley, R.A., Strayer, D.L., & Atchley, P. (2012). Creativity in the wild: Improving creative reasoning through immersion in natural settings. PLoS ONE, 7(12): e51474. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051474