Attention please

We’re focusing on the ‘restorative potential’ of virtual nature, but what does ‘restoration’ mean and how will we measure it?

Those questions aren’t easy to answer, and in the 1980s two camps layed out their theories explaining how and why spending time in nature might be therapeutic.

Drawing on the emerging concept of biophilia, Roger Ulrich suggested that humans evolved to prefer certain types of environments because they offered our ancestors better chances of survival.

His Psychophysiological Stress Recovery Theory—PSRT for short—posits that we are naturally drawn to landscapes which provide water, food and shelter; and that spending time in these places causes positive emotions which can alleviate feelings of stress.

Ulrich argues these evolutionary preferences are absent in urban environments (which we have only recently begun to inhabit), explaining why spending time in nature is found to be more restorative than spending time in cities. Importantly, in this context ‘restorative’ means offering recovery from physical and mental stress.

Whilst PSRT focuses on the alleviation of stress through nature encounters to create “...a broad shift in feelings towards a more positively-toned emotional state”, a second and complementary theory has also been suggested; one which instead focuses on recovery from mental fatigue.

In their seminal work from 1989, Rachel and Stephen Kaplan outlined the theoretical framework for Attention Restoration Theory (ART). They proposed that humans’ ability to sustain periods of focused or ‘directed’ attention is finite, and that periods of ‘involuntary’ attention are required to replenish these resources.

The Kaplans suggest that many aspects of modern life require the use of directed attention and that it is most noticed by its absence; after a long day of work many of us will have experienced difficulty concentrating and the inevitable feeling of irritability.

According to ART, safe natural environments are perfect at creating conditions which promote restoration, allowing directed attention to rest and recover. ART suggests there are four qualities which work together to make a natural environment restorative:

  • Fascination: It should ‘softly’ hold a person’s attention, leaving room for reflection and contemplation;

  • Being away: It should provide a feeling of being away from everyday concerns. This could be physical or imagined distance;

  • Compatibility: A person should be able to “...carry out one’s activities smoothly and without struggle”;

  • Extent: an environment must provide sufficient stimuli to explore, engaging the mind through richness of experience or physical scale.

Although both PSRT and ART focus on different mechanisms, they complement one another quite neatly. For example, stress can occur without losing the ability to focus attention; whilst one can be attentionally fatigued without being stressed.

We’ll be using both of these frameworks to understand how digital and immersive experiences of nature can help people restore, and getting to grips with the specific factors which aid this restoration.

Alex Smalley