Attention Restoration Theory: A systematic review

This study is assessing the evidence that exists for the attention restoration values of exposure to natural environments and images.

In order to investigate the existing literature, this project is undertaking a systematic review of experimental studies that have compared natural settings with other (non-natural or urban) settings.

It will use a systematic approach to identifying, appraising and synthesising relevant, existing and quantitative research evidence. Studies that only assess the perceived benefits of natural settings will not be included.

The research team is working closely with Alison Bethel at PenCLAHRC, and is hoping to understand if the attention restoration values of nature are different for:

  • Different groups of people (e.g. adults, children)
  • Varied prior demands (e.g. people with stressful jobs)
  • Different types of natural settings (e.g. seascapes vs. landscapes)
  • Different types of exposure or engagement
  • People with different opinions about natural settings

They are also focusing on understanding the extent to which differences between various environments could be explained by confounding factors such as physical activity, whether the impacts persist over the long term, and assessing what evidence exists for causal mechanisms.

Prospero registration number: CRD42013005008

Background

Attention Restoration Theory (ART) (Kaplan, 1989, 1995) suggests that mental fatigue and concentration can be improved by time spent in, or looking at nature. The capacity of the brain to focus on a specific stimulus or task is limited and results in ‘directed attention fatigue’. ART proposes that exposure to natural environments encourages more effortless brain function, thereby allowing it to recover and replenish its directed attention capacity.

According to Kaplan, the natural environment must have four properties in order to provide this restorative effect:

  1. Extent (the scope to feel immersed in the environment)
  2. Being away (providing an escape from habitual activities)
  3. Soft fascination (aspects of the environment that capture attention effortlessly)
  4. Compatibility (individuals must want to be exposed to, and appreciate, the environment)

It is thought that soft fascination plays the key role, with the other three properties enhancing or sustaining fascination.

Although ART is a widely cited concept in the literature, it is unclear how much empirical evidence there is to support this theory.