This post is also available in Dutch.
In the midst of a pandemic, getting out in nature is one of the activities we can still enjoy. Now more than ever, we’re hearing about the benefits of urban green space, forest bathing, and open-air living. Beyond providing the obvious benefits of leisure and exercise, spending time outdoors can also improve our cognitive functions, such as memory and the ability to focus attention. How may these cognitive benefits happen? One prominent theory is that nature is so beneficial for our minds because it provides the perfect environment to restore our attention.
Why does our attention need to be restored?
As noted in a previous blog post, our attention and working memory have a limited capacity: we can keep only a small number of things in mind at a time and need to work hard to keep our focus on the right things. Over time, this need to block out distractions can cause us to feel mentally fatigued, which, in turn, can reduce our motivation to do other mentally-demanding tasks. For example, during a long day of working from home, as you try your best to stay focused and ignore notifications, other family members, and/or your sink full of dishes, you are likely to feel mentally exhausted, and like your mind needs a break. In order to stay motivated and restore your attention, you may need a balance between cognitively demanding activities and “mental leisure”. Mental leisure essentially means giving our minds a break and even letting them wander, rather than trying hard to focus on a particular task.
What makes time in nature so leisurely?
Natural environments may provide the perfect conditions for this mental leisure because they create experiences of soft fascination. Essentially, this means that nature provides an appealing space to rest our minds because it does not occupy all of our attention resources, and thus leaves us some capacity to think and process other things in the background. Soft fascination is contrasted with hard fascination, which demands all of our attention and prevents that background processing. Urban landscapes, as well as things like TV shows and social media are thought to elicit hard fascination, and so don’t allow our minds to recover.
We still need to do more research to know for sure whether attention restoration through the experience of soft fascination is the reason why nature is so beneficial to our minds. Regardless of how nature helps, the evidence for the cognitive benefits of time spent in nature is quite consistent. So in the meantime, and especially when the short, cold days make Netflix particularly tempting, it can’t hurt to bundle up and get outdoors.
Author: Rebecca Calcott
Buddy: Kim Beneyton
Editor: Ellen Lommerse
Translator: Jill Naaijen
Editor Translation: Floortje Bouwkamp