Spending time in nature such as watching a sunset, gazing at the ocean or mountains, sitting in a park, escaping to the country side or a nature retreat, has provided people with the opportunity to rest, reflect and resolve problems.
This common experience demonstrates nature’s valuable role, in contributing to overcoming mental fatigue and improving our ability to solve problems.
However, researchers have predominantly focused on nature’s role in restoring our attention (Berman, Jonides & Kaplan, 2008; Berto, 2005; Kaplan, 1995; Kaplan & Berman, 2010). If nature could facilitate problem solving is yet to be explored.
The natural world has previously been depicted as a restorative environment that replenishes ones resources and urban environments such as cityscapes have been seen to potentially reduce attentional capacity. Considering that this positive psychology strategy has important implications for the workplace and everyday life, it is critical to examine if nature may help us to solve problems.
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Attention Restoration Theory (ART)
A theory that explains the cognitive benefits nature provides, is Kaplan’s (1995) Attention Restoration Theory (ART).
ART explains that nature has the capacity to renew attention after exerting mental energy such as; feeling tired after studying for exams, working tirelessly on a work project or an assessment.
Kaplan outlined that there are two attentional systems.
Firstly, directed attention requires prolonged focus, ignoring distractions and as a result is prone to mental fatigue. An example of a use of directed attention is trying to solve a problem at work as an individual must intensely focus attention and ignore the surrounding distractions at the workplace.
The secondary attentional system, soft fascination, does not require focus and involves effortless reflection. It is proposed by ART to be utilised in natural environments, referred to as restorative environments as they enable the directed attention system to recover from depletion.
Nature vs. the city
Research has shown that nature has greater restorative benefits than urban environments and this has been applied to diverse settings. For example; two researchers Ottosson and Grahn (2005) found people in an aged care facility who were exposed to nature for one hour a week had improved attention compared to the elderly people that remained indoors.
In a completely different context, Kuo and Sullivan (2001) found young adult residents who had a view of nature had higher scores on attentional capacity and were also less likely to be aggressive, compared to people who lived in the inner city.
These examples reinforce how nature has consistently been found to be the most effective restorative setting. (Check out ‘The Positive Effects of Nature‘ and ‘The Positive Effects of Hallucinogens‘ for more information on natural healing)
The power of mere photographs
An influential experiment by Berto (2005) evaluated if contact with nature could restore attention after mental fatigue. A task was administered that involved individuals sustaining attention and subsequently participants were shown images of natural or urban environments or geometrical patterns and then assessed again on the sustained attention task (Berto, 2005).
The results revealed that viewing the nature photographs improved attention and exposure to photographs of city settings decreased attention.
In contrast there is little research on problem solving ability. Future research needs to utilise a similar experimental design to Berto’s study, by still involving random assignment to the three conditions, inducing mental fatigue and then exposure to the conditions either urban, restorative nature or neutral photographs.
However, after exposure to stimuli this needs to be extended by including a valid problem solving task, to investigate if a natural restorative environment can also aid a higher-order thinking skill; problem solving.
It has been reliably reported that the natural environment is the most effective in renewing our resources, due to the process of increasing effortless reflection.
Thus, exploring if restorative environments could promote problem solving skills is worthy of investigation as it could possibly assist individuals to overcome mental ruts, frustration, stress, procrastination etc. And after immersing oneself in nature and subsequently solving a task it could promote positive emotions and a sense of; productiveness, accomplishment, contentment, satisfaction and elation.
If natural environments can improve problem resolution skills, it would be a significant strategy for incorporating natural settings for workplace and student areas, team building activities and health and wellness programs.
So next time you are exhausted and struggling to resolve a problem why wouldn’t you take advantage of this free and easily accessible resource, which is nature?