“My mind is gentle and the thoughts that come are free. No agenda or plans arise. Just easy reflection.”
The cognitive benefits of being outdoors and in nature are dynamic. It seems to always give you what you need. In his work The Wisdom of Wilderness, late psychiatrist Gerald May discovered “the power of slowing,” which he described as “a wave of warmth inside me.” This slowing, which is intrinsic in the Attention Restoration Theory, has the theme that any Taoist would recognize. “My mind is gentle and the thoughts that come are free. All driveness is gone. No agenda or plans arise. Just easy reflection.”
To the believer the chance to experience, believe, and know is enough; the skeptic must have science, studies, and research, which I have read my share of. One of the most compelling that I have had the pleasure to discover is the Attention Restoration Theory, which hypothesizes that concentration improves once you have spent time in nature. This theory was developed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in the 1980s, and a whole host of studies have been done to either dispute or concur with this theory. At its basic, the theory breaks down states of attention into four categories: directed attention, directed attention fatigue, effortless attention, and restored attention.
Anything that requires effort, like walking through a busy urban area (watchful for danger) and avoiding the distractions all around you (cars, cabs, people, and pets) draws upon your directed attention. Concentrating while working, grappling with complex social issues, and untangling interpersonal matters all take directed attention. If you don’t rest, these tasks lead to direct attention fatigue, which the Kaplans argued we all suffer from. Contact with nature supports directed attention, thus categorized as “restored attention,” and a number of studies have found contact with everyday nature to be related to supporting attention in adults and children. A study was completed examining the relationship between children’s nature exposure through leisure activities and their ability to hold their attention to a task at hand. Parents were then surveyed rating their child’s attention after activities in several settings. The results indicate that children function better than usual after activities in green settings. Parents all around the world know that children are better listeners after they’ve had a romp outside.
Camping, hiking, walking, or sitting—it doesn’t matter what you do outdoors, just that you are outdoors
Any task that has intrinsic interest can be categorized as “effortless attention.” Anything in this category gives you pleasure, it may not be restful, but you don’t have to concentrate while doing these activities because you enjoy them and see them as restorative. The difference between something that is considered effortless and restorative has to do with what the activity is. Exposure to nature and wilderness can have psychological benefits that can restore attention. Video games are effortless. One nourishes you and soothes, the other is “fun”, but not restorative.
Like anything that can become depleted, you must remember to replenish. Camping, hiking, walking, or sitting—it doesn’t matter what you do outdoors, just that you are outdoors. And while you can take a weekend to camp at one of our state’s amazing campgrounds (nysparks.state.ny.us/parks), interactions with nature can be less of a commitment in time. You can walk or bike the Rail Trail (as the website states “Hike it or bike it. Ride on horseback or roller blades. Ski it cross-country style or on snow shoes.” For access points, visit hudsonvalleyrailtrail.net). For the more adventurous, there are the Gunks, or Kaaterskill Falls.
An impromptu visit to Val Kill historic site or the Vanderbilt Mansion is an excellent way to retreat for an hour and then return to pick apart a complex project. If you have even less time and you need to break away you can walk outside, breathe deeply, and just look up. Nature has a calming effect on us. Give yourself a break and reap all of its benefits.
by Vivian Mandala
VISITvortex.com features a large selection of outdoor videos to get you started.
SEVEN VORTEX VIDEOS TO INSPIRE YOU: