By Katherine Salant
Washington, DC (September 4, 2010)- When cognitive psychologist Paul Atchley wants to take a break during his workday, he steps outside to roam a few of his 26 acres near Lawrence, Kan., and contemplate the vast expanse of the Great Plains.
Although many have derisively characterized his landscape as being “flat as a pancake” and barely worth a look, Atchley finds the bobcats, coyotes and five species of woodpeckers endlessly captivating, and the long views across the empty horizon relaxing.
When Atchley’s colleague, University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer, works at home and takes a break, he walks up a forested creek bed that adjoins his property on the outskirts of Salt Lake City. With the calming sound of flowing water in the background, he looks for signs of local fauna — including deer, moose and porcupines — and enjoys the ever-changing palette of the local foliage.
Taking a break to enjoy nature is a pleasure that most of us would like to incorporate into our workday because we know that a walk in the great outdoors can lift our spirits. However, both psychologists said the benefits are greater than most of us realize and are more necessary than ever. If nature is not easily accessible, Strayer and Atchley suggest creating a space within your house that replicates some of its calming effects.
Why is nature’s lift needed more now than, say, 40 years ago? It’s because of the information age we now inhabit. The ability to instantly communicate almost anywhere on the globe is a boon, but the steady stream of beeps and rings is fragmenting our workdays and our lives. Fielding as many as 30 to 40 cellphone texts or calls and 50 to 75 e-mails a day is not uncommon, Strayer said. Even worse, he added, this barrage continues into the evening and weekend, interrupting, by some estimates, as much as 70 percent of our daily activities.
These constant interruptions force us to shift our mental gears constantly, at great personal cost. As Atchley, a professor at the University of Kansas, explained it, the gear-shifting activity in your brain eventually depletes your “executive attention function,” and this makes you fatigued, irritable and far less able to concentrate and stay on task. The executive attention function, he said, is critical because it controls where you put your attention and helps you focus by excluding the distracting conversations, thoughts and noises that pop up on the periphery of almost any activity at the workplace or at home.
When your executive attention function is constantly juggling “the memo the boss wanted yesterday,” “a text message from John” and the “e-mail message marked urgent from Bill,” you will run out of gas halfway through your workday, Atchley said. Furthermore, Strayer added, the executive attention function resides in your frontal lobes, the part of your brain that also controls your ability to think and whose circuits define your personality and who you are. “It’s not a good thing to get that portion of your brain fatigued,” he said.
The easiest cure for this type of brain fatigue is a timeout to commune with nature and recharge your batteries, and both psychologists said that is why they take such breaks themselves. A walk in a natural area is sufficiently engaging to capture your attention without taxing it. The brain circuits that are restored with nature are the same ones that are restored with meditation, leading some researchers to speculate that gazing at nature allows us to “meditate naturally,” Atchley said.
The curative power of nature is not new; scholars and writers have noted this for centuries. But recently, psychologists have offered measurable proof. In a series of famous lab experiments, students who took a 45-minute walk in a nature area performed significantly better on a focused task than they did after a 45-minute walk in the urban area that adjoined their campus. The push now, Strayer said, is to devise experiments with MRI exams and PET scans so that “we can more precisely answer why nature is good for you.”
A timeout to gaze at nature sounds easy enough to implement, but most of us do not have the wide-open prairie or the soothing sound of a moving stream at our doorsteps. As an alternative, Strayer and Atchley said that people would benefit from spending 15 minutes once or twice a day in a “device-free” place at home that replicates what nature’s soothing balm accomplishes. When we are in nature’s thrall, Atchley said, we effortlessly “unplug, relax and rebuild attention capacity.”
Designating a device-free place at home would not be difficult for the many households with formal living and dining rooms that are rarely used, an extra fourth bedroom with no designated function, or a sitting area in the master bedroom suite. Lacking this, you’ll have to get more creative — even turning in a swivel chair to face a corner of a room could work, Atchley said.
What’s important is what’s in the view. A visually absorbing activity outside such as a bird feeder with lots of “customers” would be optimal, but you can produce the desired effect in other ways, Atchley said. For example, an aquarium with fish moving around will hold your attention enough to recharge your batteries, but not so much that these would be depleted. Surrounding yourself with plants, though comforting, is not engaging enough, he said. Likewise, after a few days, most artwork is not totally absorbing, either.
Strayer recommended an indoor water feature that can produce a soothing, peaceful sound. During the winter, he said, a fire can be “mesmerizing.” Other restorative activities suggested by the two: light reading or a crossword puzzle that’s not “super hard.” Even watching movie clips of nature documentaries can produce the desired calming effect, Strayer said, but watching television for 20 minutes “won’t do the trick.” The quick scene cuts that characterize most television dramas and commercials are too stimulating. Making his final pitch for a device-free timeout, Strayer concluded with this thought: “We’re running with reckless abandon to go wireless in every possible way, but a totally wired house is not the sanctuary you imagine.”
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