Humans are said to have two types of attention: voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary attention is directed attention, it is the type of attention used when a task requires deliberate and sustained attention.
By contrast, involuntary attention (sometimes referred to as ‘soft fascination’) does not require an effort. It is proposed that certain elements in our environments such as “strange things, moving things, wild animals, bright things, pretty things, etc.” can draw in this type of attention. Building on this we can describe attention fatigue as a process that occurs during the performance of cognitive tasks which require prolonged use of directed attention and active suppression of irrelevant information.
When the capacity to maintain directed attention becomes overloaded, performance declines, and people are subjected to increased levels of mental fatigue, leaving them less capable of dealing with uncertainty and having a reduced ability to plan.
Involuntary attention or ‘soft fascination’ typically associated with contact with nature through ordinary natural settings is capable of restoring voluntary or directed attention, and has been highlighted by a number of authors to be the better of a range of options including meditation.
Contact with nature contributes to recovery in four ways:
First, natural environments provide opportunities to gain distance from routine activities and thoughts. This is referred to as “being away”. It may be associated with easily accessible natural environments within urban areas, as well as with more distant areas in close proximity to the sea, mountains, lakes, streams, forests, meadows and other idyllic places commonly used to “get away” from busy city living.
Second, the “soft fascination” automatically associated with aspects of nature such as clouds, sunsets, snow patterns and the motion of leaves in the wind holds human attention effortlessly, while providing sufficient opportunity to allow the mind to think about other things.
Third, the ‘extent’ of the natural environment can provide a scope or depth of experience in which one can become immersed so that the mind is engaged and gains rest from other concerns.
Fourth, because people have an inherent affinity with nature, natural environments provide a setting that is compatible or well matched to human desires, which allows attention to rest.
While non-natural experiences could have these four characteristics present, many studies have shown that contact with nature is the most common and most reliable source of mentally restorative experiences to contain all four simultaneously.
An environment abundant with these four characteristics, or even just one of two, is likely to invoke involuntary attention, which allows directed attention to rest and replenish.
A restorative experience which includes all four factors working together to a relatively high degree during a given period of time will eventually lead to an individual gaining the ability to confront difficult personal matters and reflect on themselves and their priorities in life.
A Swiss study found that visits to forests and parks promoted recovery from stress in 87 per cent of respondents, and a sense of being well-balanced in 40 per cent of respondents. This supports the view that recovering direct attention capacity leads to a contemplative state of mind, where people can attain a state of calm or balance and think through and gain perspective on their problems.
Oh, by the way, turn the phone off while you are out there.