Gazing Through the Window – Attention Restoration and Views of Nature

While studying for exams as a student, I would often catch myself gazing through the window and loosing track of time, completely unaware of piles of books in front of me. Does that sound familiar? You’ll be happy to learn it’s not called being lazy, but restoring attention (a term which gives an impression of actually doing something, instead of doing nothing). According to attention restoration theory (Kaplan & Kaplan 1989, according to Kaplan, 2004), focusing attention for long periods of time causes mental fatigue, so we shift to spontaneous and undirected attention and immerse in a different unthreatening “place”, giving time for directed attention to renew itself.

University Library in Utercht, the Netherlands; photo by.Storm

Restorative experiences are more likely to occur in interesting settings that bring about effortless attention and involve being away, seeing into the distance, and satisfaction. Vacation would be an example of a great restorative experience, but on a daily basis we may settle for their minimized versions – window views.  We’ve already noticed that they draw our involuntary attention, right? They also give us a feeling of mentally going away (being “absent-minded”), enable us to see into the distance (at least most of them do), and we usually experience more satisfaction in what we see outside then in anything that’s on our desk. However, not all window views are the same and most of us (even architecture lovers) choose views of nature over views of buildings. Does that mean that views of nature provide better restoration for our overstressed minds?

Big windows at “kollegium” (dorm-like residence) of Copenhagen University, Denmark; photo by esmtll

Tennessen and Cimprich (1995) tested directed attention on a population that really needs it – university undergraduate students. Their goal was to investigate the relation between attention capacity and window views so they conducted testing  in the subject’s dormitory rooms. They also took photographs of subjects’ room views, and categorized them into one of four categories ranging from “all natural” and “all built.”

Many windows of Simmons Hall, the new dorm at MIT designed by Steven Holl; photo by BeastFace

Students who occupied rooms with natural views showed an increased capacity for directed attention when compared to students who occupied rooms with built views (views of buildings), so the authors concluded that views of nature may indeed be related to better attention restoration experiences.

Restoring window view from the Educatorium designed by Rem Koolhaas , Utrecht, the Netherlands; photo by pyramis

Kaplan (2004) points out that you don’t have to be stressed to benefit from contact from nature. While stress is a reaction to (threthened) harm, what we usually mean by inaccuratelly saying we’re stressed out is mental fatigue. We feel worn thin not because of bad things but as a result of too many things that require our directed attention. He also argues that this may be evolutinary novel problem because much of what was important to the evolving human – weather, trees, animals – was and still is innately fascinating and does not require directed attention. In contrast, in the modern world, the split between the important and the interesting has become extreme. The modern human must exert effort to do the important while resisting distraction from the interesting.  We might think of windows as oases for our attention. And the more nature views they provide, the more refreshing oases they are.

References:

1. S. Kaplan (2004) Some hidden benefits of the urban forest. In C.C. Konijnendijk, J. Schipperijn and K. H. Hoyer (Eds.) Forestry serving urbanised societies. (Selected Papers from conference jointly organized by IUFRO, EFI and the Danish Centre for Forest, Landscape and Planning in Copenhagen, 27-30 August 2002).Vienna, Austria: IUFRO (IUFRO World Series Vol. 14). pp. 221-232. (full text)

2.  Tennessen, C.M. and  Cimprich, B. (1995) Views to Nature: Effects on Attention. Journal of Environmental Psychology. 15, pp 77-85. (full text)

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