Revisiting Attention Restoration Theory: the mindfulness of rest in nature

Jul 25, 2023 β€” Medito Foundation
Revisiting Attention Restoration Theory:  the mindfulness of rest in nature

π‘»π’‰π’Šπ’” π’ƒπ’π’π’ˆ 𝒑𝒐𝒔𝒕 π’˜π’‚π’” π’˜π’“π’Šπ’•π’•π’†π’ π’ƒπ’š π‘΄π’†π’…π’Šπ’•π’ π‘­π’π’–π’π’…π’‚π’•π’Šπ’π’ 𝒗𝒐𝒍𝒖𝒏𝒕𝒆𝒆𝒓𝒔, 𝑱𝒂𝒄𝒐𝒃 𝑽𝒂𝒏 𝑯𝒂𝒂𝒇𝒕𝒆𝒏 𝒂𝒏𝒅 π‘¬π’ƒπ’“π’‚π’‰π’Šπ’Ž 𝑴𝒖𝒔𝒕𝒂𝒇𝒂

In an earlier blog post for Medito, I (Jacob) talked about the connections between mindfulness and nature. Together, we learned about and investigated some of the beneficial effects of being in nature and how some of these effects are similar to those found through mindfulness practice. We also talked about the importance of continuing mindfulness practice even if we can find some of the same benefits by spending time in nature, and we highlighted some techniques for bringing your mindfulness practice outside with you.

In the blog post we also introduced some psychological theories. One of them being Attention Restoration Theory. Attention Restoration Theory suggests that being in nature helps us to rest our brains. How does this work? The theory suggests that nature is fascinating, and it naturally draws our attention. Nature takes our involuntary attention and gives us something to focus on easily. But because we have, up until recently, lived in nature, our attention falls on things in the natural environment without very much effort. This is very different than what many of us go through in our everyday lives where we have to voluntarily (purposely) focus on lots of different things. Being in nature lets our brain automatically focus on pleasant things like beautiful trees and flowing water. In doing this, it helps us rest our voluntary attention and thoughts, as well as the parts of the brain that draw so much energy and are often stimulated in our fast-paced lives.

Kaplan (1995) calls this kind of attention that natural environments produce β€œsoft fascination.” Soft fascination is what draws our involuntary attention. It can describe anything that we are naturally captivated by.

Personal reflections on nature connection and mindfulness

This year I had the opportunity to guest lecture in an undergraduate course that focused on interdisciplinary scholarship, on bringing together art and science subjects. This course also focused on wellbeing and mindfulness. At the beginning of each class, we started with a mindfulness practice. These took different forms. Some were individual, others followed guided meditations, and some were directly related to nature. In the week I lectured, we gathered for our mindfulness moment and listened to recordings of a calm forest.

My lecture talked a lot about the meaning of β€œnature” and the ways that different subjects address the topic of nature connection. In discussing the connections between nature and psychology, I shared a research article about a study investigating the benefits of mindfulness practice in nature. In the study, participants were placed in three different groups. One group walked indoors, one group walked outdoors, and one group walked outdoors while receiving instructions for a mindfulness activity.

The researchers found that people who walked outdoors had higher levels of state mindfulness than those who walked inside. This means that participants' levels of mindfulness were higher outside in nature than inside a building, even without mindfulness instruction. However, the highest levels of mindfulness were found in the group who received mindfulness instruction while in nature. In other words, being in nature is good for promoting mindfulness, but being in nature and receiving mindfulness instruction at the same time is really good for promoting mindfulness.

The mindfulness activity in the study was specifically designed to be used in nature. At certain points, it asked participants to bring β€œattention to how the breeze feels on your skin, or how the sunlight dances on the trees or on the water” (Nisbet et al., 2019, p. 9). These prompts are only possible when participants are outside, and they all involve bringing attention to aspects of nature.

This brings us back to attention restoration. As we learned, Attention Restoration Theory tells us that nature is fascinating. Aspects of nature draw our soft fascinationβ€”we can focus on them without putting in a lot of effort. We can use this idea of soft fascination to connect time spent in nature to mindfulness.

Mindfulness practice can take the form of any activity where we bring our full attention to our current experiences. Sometimes it can be difficult to bring our attention to one experience. Anyone who has tried mindfulness meditation before will tell you this! But maybe we can use our knowledge of Attention Restoration Theory to help our mindfulness practice.

Perhaps, the theory can explain why participants in the study experienced such positive results from practicing mindfulness in nature. They were asked to focus on aspects of the natural environment, and these aspects already draw our soft fascination. Maybe this can make it easier for us to focus on these things.

Suggestions for nature-based mindfulness

Next time you are finding it really hard to focus on your mindfulness meditation, you can try using Attention Restoration Theory to boost your practice and help you focus your attention. This might take the form of researching nature-based meditation practices or simply spending time outside. If it works for you, then you are doing it right!

Here are a couple of suggestions for practicing mindfulness in nature:

  • Focus on the way that the sun hits the leaves on a tree or bush.
  • Focus on the sounds of nearby streams, waterfalls, or animals.
  • Look at a spot on the ground in front of you and think about how much life is present in the small space.
  • Breathe with the trees. When you breathe in, think about how you are breathing in the oxygen the trees and plants provide for you. And when you breathe out, think about how you are feeding those same living things with your carbon dioxide. Or, as a recent scholarly publication articulates, β€œWhen we breathe in, we breathe in the out-breath of plants, shrubs, and trees. When we breathe out, we breathe out the in-breath of flowers, animals, and birds.” (Van Goden et al., 2018, p. 1655)

If you can’t practice mindfulness outside, or if it doesn’t feel like something that will benefit you, there are other ways to connect with nature in your practice.

As part of the course I lectured for, students were asked to produce a knowledge translation assignment. They had to creatively summarize the important topics, themes, and feelings the lectures captured. Below is a poem written by one of the students and a co-author of this article. It beautifully describes what it means to be connected with nature, and it is something I have used in my own mindfulness practice.

β€œI am One” by Ebrahim Mustafa
I am the forest, the river, the sky,
The eagle that soars, the butterfly.
I am the wind that talks in the trees,
The rain that feeds the leaves
I am the sun that warms the earth,
The fire that brings new life to birth.
I am the rocks, the mountains, the hills,
The valleys and meadows, the streams and rills.
I am the silence, the peace, the calm,
The stillness that surrounds, the balm
That soothes the soul and eases the mind,
The connection we seek, so hard to find.
I am the nature that calls to you,
That welcomes you home, that’s always true.
I am the oneness, the unity,
The beauty that shines in all we see.
So come, my friend, and walk with me,
In fields of gold and by the sea.
Let’s be one with nature, hand in hand,
And find the peace we need to understand.

When I have trouble with my mindfulness practice, I often turn to nature. If for whatever reason I can’t directly be in nature, I read this poem. It brings me a sense of connection and allows me to focus my attention on being part of a greater world. I hope the suggestions in this article can help you to connect your mindfulness practice with nature.