More on Restoring Attentional Resources

In the nineteenth century the famous psychologist William James made a distinction between two types of attention: 1 involuntary attention, when attention is captured by inherently important or intriguing stimuli, and voluntary or directed attention, when attention is directed by cognitive-control processes.  Paying attention, concentrating, make demands on attentional resources. When attentional resources are depleted you have difficulty concentrating and experience mental fatigue. Fortunately, there are techniques for restoring attentional resources. See the Blog Post “The Relaxation Response.” Another approach comes from Attention Resource Theory (ART) 23. According to ART, directed attention involves resolving conflict when there is a need to suppress distracting stimulation, which depletes attentional resources. According to ART, interactions with nature can restore these attentional resources. A previous blog post, “Restoring Attentional Resources,” discussed ART. Given the importance of this topic and as we all suffer from mental fatigue and difficulties concentrating, this current posting expands upon the previous post.

A recent article, “This Side of Paradise: Discovering  Why the Human Mind Needs Nature,4” provides a concise update on ART. During waking hours voluntary attention can be restored when a person’s involuntary attention becomes heavily engaged thus giving direct attention a breather. Research has indicated that nature is especially conducive to this involuntary engagement.

One might wonder what is so special about nature. Might not television be suited to distracting the mind? The objective of television is to keep the viewer from changing channels. So rather than lightening the load on direct attention, television actively captures it. Consequently research5 has found a direct correlation between the amount of time someone spends in front of a television and that person’s irritability. This research has also found that exposures to nature affect a wide variety of cognitive activity ranging from dampening road rage to boosting the spirits and attentional capacities of cancer patients.

Other research found that patients whose hospital window overlooked nature recorded shorter postoperative stays, required less potent pain medication, and evaluated their nurses more positively after gall bladder surgery than patients who looked onto a brick wall.6

An interesting question is how effective are virtual implementations of nature. One study involved three groups of 30. One group sat near a glass window that overlooked a nature scene. The second group viewed a similar scene on a high-definition plasma television; and the third group sat near an empty wall. After working in these environments heart rates were measured to gauge how quickly subjects in each setting recovered from stressors. Although the glass window group overlooking a natural scene showed significant restorative value, no significant differences in recovery to stress were found between the plasma screen group and the blank wall group. Nevertheless, it would be premature to conclude that there is no value to virtual nature. Another study workers in offices with virtual natural scenes over a sixteen week period reported higher well being, cognitive functioning, and connection with the environment.

            So attention is extremely important to memory and cognitive functioning.  Attention is depleted and needs to be restored.  Attentional resources vary throughout the day.  These are important points to remember when planning your day.  It is also important to engage in effortful Type 2 processing7.   As we age the vast repository of memory and experience makes it both easier and more likely to rely upon Type 1 processing.  Although this is one of the potential benefits of aging, there remains a need to continue to engage in appropriate Type 2 processes to ward off cognitive decline.

1James, W.  Psychology:  The briefer course.   New York:  Holt.

2Kaplan, S. (1995).  The restorative benefits of nature:  Toward an integrative framework.  Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15,  160-189

3Kaplan, S. (2001).  Meditation, restoration, and the management of mental fatigue. Environment and Behavior, 33, 480-506.

4Jaffe, E. (2010) Observer, 23, 10-15.

5 Kaplan, S., & Berman, M. G. (2010). Directed attention as a common resource for executive functioning and self-regulation. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 43-57.

6Ulrich, R.S., (1984). View through a window may influence recovery from a surgery. Science, 224, 420-421.

7See the previous post on this blog “The Two System View of Cognition”

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