Garden A.R.T. – Attention Restoration Theory

By Linda Wiggen Kraft

We all can benefit from A.R.T. in our gardens – attention restoration theory. As we know from our experiences, and studied by science, nature positively alters how we respond to the stresses of everyday living and extreme stress full situations.

We respond to urban environments and nature environments with two different kinds of mental processing: directed attention or effortless attention. Urban environments drain us mentally because we need to focus our attention constantly on things like getting across the street, not walking into others on the sidewalk, or navigating changes in the sidewalk. This is called directed attention and over time causes attention fatigue. Our attention is constantly demanded by the specifics of ever changing scenes. Other times when we have to focus on tasks that demand our constant attention, say at work, we can also experience attention fatigue. The cure for this fatigue is spending time in nature.

When we spend time in nature our attention is freer, there is less demand of immediate focus. This is called effortless attention. The scenes of nature from a small garden to larger woods, bodies of water and vast wilderness draw our attention, but in a gentler way. We can let our minds wander as we wander these spaces. Effortless attention restores us mentally and physically and relieves focused attention fatigue. This is why our minds are restored in nature settings, not drained.

The benefits of taking time to walk and be in nature have been proven scientifically. The Japanese practice of Forest Bathing (Shinrin-yoku) where people slowly walk through forests has proven health benefits of lower blood pressure, pulse rates and stress. The Japanese government has spent over four million dollars studying the health effects of Forest Bathing. Based on the positive results of these studies, there are forty eight official Forest Bathing sites in Japan that are part of the national health program.

A study done at the University of Michigan with women who were just diagnosed and soon after treated for breast cancer showed those who were prescribed spending two hours a week in nature before and after surgery were able to be more focused and able to complete hard mental tasks better than those who did not spend time outdoors. Often the shock of diagnosis, treatment and recovery makes mental tasks hard to do.

A study at the University of Illinois looked at Attention Restoration Theory as an aid to help children ages 7 to 11 who were diagnosed with ADD and ADHD. Parents kept track of the types and times of outdoor activities and how their children responded. The study concluded that: “Results indicate that children function better than usual after activities in green settings and that the “greener” a child’s play area, the less severe his or her attention deficit symptoms. Thus, contact with nature may support attentional functioning in a population of children who desperately need attentional support.”

The healing power of nature has something for all of us. Whether in our gardens, or wilderness, our attention can freely experience awe and wonder. Take time for effortless attention in nature to restore your body, mind and soul.

Linda Wiggen Kraft is a landscape designer who creates holistic and organic gardens. She is also a mandala artist and workshop leader. Visit her blog: CreativityForTheSoul.com/blog or her website: CreativityForTheSoul.com. Call her at (314) 504-4266.