Whether it’s a vibration in your pocket, a catchy song, or a saturated animation, each day brings a multitude of distractions begging for your attention. As the mind struggles to balance the apps and messages and tasks calling for your time, the overstimulation eventually becomes too much, and it suddenly feels nearly impossible to maintain your focus.
However, touching your hands to soil, breathing in the smell of living pine, and even gazing at bees buzzing around flowers can all help to recenter your attention and improve concentration. Today, we’re examining the benefits of immersing oneself in nature, and how you can enhance your focus in daily life.
The Science Behind Nature’s Impact on Focus
The prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain that regulates our thoughts, actions, and emotions through connections with other parts of the brain. When you use your cellphone to make a call, send a text, or write an email, you tap into the prefrontal cortex and utilize multiple connections in balancing these tasks, which drains cognitive resources and results in mental fatigue. So how can being in nature help recharge your mind?
Scientists have long been fascinated with nature’s effect on our brain, from stress reduction to increased creativity to improved focus. In the 1980’s, psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan developed the attention restoration theory (ART), which hypothesizes that nature exposure improves our concentration and renews our attention after exerting mental energy, and many studies conducted since then have found it to be true.
Natural environments help to reduce mental fatigue and improve cognitive ability. If you find yourself struggling to concentrate, even a 20-minute walk in a wooded area can improve ADHD symptoms more than a stroll around the city block. However, if you have more time, you’ll reap more benefits. One study found a 50-minute walk in oak woodlands resulted in improved short-term memory, less anxiety, and more positive emotions compared to participants who walked for 50 minutes along a four-lane road.
Immersing yourself in nature will reduce stress, enhance your creativity, and increase your attention span. Here’s how it all works:
How Nature Reduces Your Stress
Most complex decision-making happens in the prefrontal cortex, but when under stress, the brains release stress hormones that cause the amygdala, the survival center of the brain, to take control, which lowers your ability to retain information and focus.
However, multiple studies have proven that spending time in nature is an excellent way to mitigate stress through lower blood pressure, reduced stress hormone levels, enhanced immune system functioning, and improved mood.
Some studies suggest looking at images of nature can help soothe the mind, but it’s better to engage in the real thing. Even a 20-minute walk through an urban park reduces salivary cortisol, a hormone that secretes into the saliva of a person under stress.
Any level of physical activity relaxes the mind, from sitting against a tree to engaging in a vigorous hike. For anyone interested in gardening or farming, getting your hands dirty has positive mental effects. Contact with a specific soil bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae, releases serotonin in the brain, a chemical that functions as an antidepressant which strengthens the immune system.
The pace of the natural world often moves much slower than humans do in day-to-day life. Taking the time to watch autumn leaves slowly drift to the ground or ducks glide through a pond may help remind you that because humans are also a part of nature, sometimes you need to slow down too.
How Nature Enhances Your Creativity
Consider how patterns in nature emanate the mind-boggling fibonacci spiral, how fungi extend their mycelium networks to communicate, or how the rabbit knows how to zig-zag away from his predator to his hiding place. Nature is a deeply creative place in which life constantly blooms and decays, and every living thing has evolved with the purpose of survival.
Being in nature also engages the human mind to problem solve; you must observe the hiking trail to ensure you don’t trip on loose rocks, build up wood and tinder to best start a fire, and watch for signs of growth or decay on your plants.
University of Utah researcher David Strayer conducted a 2012 study that found hikers after a four-day backpacking trip could solve 47% more creative puzzles than a control group of people waiting to take the hike. Later, he repeated the study, this time gauging salivary cortisol levels and monitoring the brains of hikers with mobile electroencephalogram (EEG) before, during, and after the hike. He found that hiking in nature seems to calm their mind to reset their attention spans, which encourages a creative mindset.
Strayer named this pattern of activity the “brain default network,” and tied it to creative thinking. Because nature immersion can rest attention networks and allow the prefrontal cortex to recover, it opens us up to being able to access regions of creative problem-solving.
Humanity has been inspired by nature for centuries, whether inventors like Leonardo DaVinci observed birds to design flying machines or pre-Colombian Moche artisans emulated the forms of birds to create utilitarian pottery. But even if you don’t use nature as direct inspiration for your work, the feeling of beginning a relationship with something bigger than yourself can lead to “expansive thinking” that stimulates our creativity and problem-solving abilities from being present in nature.
How Nature Increases Your Attention Span
If you struggle to maintain your attention for more than a few minutes, a natural environment may be a great antidote. Tending to a garden requires focused attention in pulling weeds, transferring seedlings, and pruning plants. Watching a river flow by may induce a state of “soft fascination” that holds your attention while appreciating the natural surroundings. This state calms the prefrontal cortex, which allows the brain to access other regions that boosts your ability to focus.
Many experiments have found that exposure to natural environments improves attentional control, memory, and cognitive flexibility. One study found that public housing units in neighborhoods with more green space showed improved attentional functioning than those with less access to green spaces.
Even a few moments in green spaces can greatly improve memory retention and attention span. An Australian study asked students to engage in attention-draining tasks on the computer. However, students who looked at a flowering green roof for only 40 seconds halfway through the task made fewer mistakes than students who gazed at a concrete rooftop for 40 seconds.
Being in nature has positive benefits for people of all ages. A study in Norway determined the effect of outdoor time on children’s health and development, and found that with more daily outdoor hours, inattention-hyperactivity symptoms dropped.
Whether you find your mind wandering or an inability to sit still, consider taking a break to walk in a park or visit a community garden so you can come back with a more balanced mind ready to tackle the tasks at hand.
How to Incorporate Nature into Daily Life
Bringing the natural world into your life doesn’t have to be difficult. If you find yourself scrolling on your phone on your breaks, it may help to download a focus tool such as Freedom, which blocks distracting sites and apps from your phone or computer. By blocking a customized list of sites during your lunch break, you may find it easier to spend your free time being present in nature. Here are some ways to incorporate more green into your day.
- During the week, you can enjoy your lunch at a picnic bench in a park and put away your cellphone to engage with a friend or observe the squirrels.
- If you’re able to dedicate 20 minutes right before or after work to take a walk through a nearby park, you may find yourself able to begin your day with increased mental clarity or leave the stress of your workday behind.
- When you have more time to dedicate on weekends or extended leisure time, spend a day in a nearby state park or nature reserve walking a simple trail or a vigorous hike.
- Research online to see if you have local farms or community gardens that are open to volunteers, where you can get your hands dirty and witness the origin of a variety of foods.
- Bringing an easy houseplant into your home or office space may help boost your mood and productivity.
- The internet is full of videos with hours of audio dedicated to emulating the noise of the forest or the ocean, which are proven to lower anxiety.
- If your office space has a patch of grass, consider asking if you can plant a pollinator garden that will attract native bees and butterflies, and provide a beautiful place to take a quick five-minute break.
Seeing Green Will Improve Your Focus
When you immerse yourself in nature, you help calm the brain’s stress response, allowing both the amygdala and prefrontal cortex to relax in order to replenish cognitive resources. After reducing stress, the mind opens to the soft fascination that inspires creativity and improves problem-solving. With newly restored attention you’re better able to focus on the present moment, whether it’s returning to work with a fresh mind, concentrating on your latest creative project, or simply enjoying what’s before you.
If you’re ready to improve your concentration, it’s best to eliminate distractions with the help of a tool like Freedom, which can help the first step in clearing your mind to open yourself to relaxing in nature and restoring your attention. You may soon find yourself next to a river, hiking a mountain, or harvesting ripe produce, and finding a new sense of restored attention.
Written by author Lorena Bally