A Natural Remedy – How Exposure To Nature Can Help Restore Your Lost Focus

7 March 2023 |
Episode 7 |
20:06

Episode summary

Do you find it easier to focus on tasks after taking a walk in the park or taking a holiday by the sea? Ever wondered why? In this episode, I explain how exposing yourself to nature can help to restore your executive attention, making it easier for you to concentrate on important or complex tasks. I explore 3 theories about why nature is so restorative for your brain and body, how long you need to spend in nature to see improvements in your attention, and suggest some ways to access nature when you live in a concrete jungle or it’s impractical to get outside.
 

Episode notes

In this episode, I talk about:

  • How constant multitasking and digital distractions have depleted your executive attention, making it difficult for you to concentrate for long periods of time
  • The importance of working to actively build up your capacity for executive attention outside of specific focused tasks
  • Why exposing yourself to nature can help restore your executive attention and the three theories that explain how this happens
  • How long you need to be exposed to nature for, in order to experience improvements in your executive attention
  • The types of nature that can be restorative for your executive attention and how to access them when stepping outside might be difficult or impractical

Resources and tools mentioned:

 

Episode transcript

Expand to read a transcript of this episode

[00:00:34] Hey guys, welcome back to The Digital Diet Podcast. I hope you’re having a fabulous day today, whatever you’re getting into. And if it’s your first time listening in, then welcome to the party, it’s great to have you here. If you’ve been around for the last couple of weeks, then I hope that you’ve been enjoying diving into digital wellness with me, and thanks for continuing to listen. I really appreciate it.

[00:00:56] I’ve got plenty more topics up my sleeve, but if there are specific areas that you’ve been struggling with, or that you’d like to learn a bit more about, then don’t forget that I am taking requests. You can email me at podcast@thedigitaldietcoach.com, and I’ll try to cover your requests in a future episode.

[00:01:15] Now, does anyone else feel like they blinked and suddenly it was March? We’re whizzing through the year and I have no idea where those first two months went. And even though I see the date on my devices every single day, I see it in my calendar when I’m organising my schedule, it was something else entirely that made me properly register the shift this time.

[00:01:37] I was taking Luna, my dog, for a walk the other day, And we have the same two or three routes that we normally do, which sometimes means walking around the neighbourhood, but usually involves going to the park so that she can run around. And as we came out of the house, she was insistent that we go around the corner.

[00:01:54] She’s only a little thing, but she’s quite stubborn, which is pretty normal for dachshunds. So anyway, I let her drag me around the corner, and as we turned into the next street, I looked up and the whole road was lined with cherry blossoms in full bloom. It was absolutely stunning.

[00:02:11] Cherry blossoms are one of my absolute favourites. The sun was shining, the sky was blue. It put the biggest smile on my face and there was just this sense of spring being in the air, and nature in all its glory and beauty, that felt really energising to me. I get similar feelings when I walk around the big London parks where you can get away from the roads and be in wide open spaces, or get lost in woodlands or tall wild grass. And also the same feeling whenever I travel and get to be by the sea, or around a lake, or up a mountain.

[00:02:45] There’s something really relaxing about being in nature that always forces me to slow down, breathe, and actually see and appreciate my surroundings. And in a slightly paradoxical way, that calmness is actually reinvigorating. I always feel much more ready to take on the day after being in nature. But it turns out that there’s some science to this, which is what we’re going to be diving into today.

[00:03:08] In the last episode, I talked about how we’re all struggling to maintain focus and concentrate on important or complex tasks for long periods of time, especially now that we live in an environment riddled with digital distractions. I’ll link the episode in the show notes, but if you’ve listened already, then you’ll know that you have three types of attention. And it’s one type, known as executive attention, that’s responsible for your ability to sustain focus on a specific task, especially one that’s more complex.

[00:03:38] We explored the myth of multitasking and I explained why constantly switching tasks, alongside regular interruptions from external sources, as well as the huge number of times that you interrupt yourself, is making it harder for you to concentrate and get shit done. And also causing you a lot of unnecessary stress and throwing your work-life balance out of whack.

[00:03:57] And then we rounded out the episode with some practical tips for managing your devices and your digital workspace during the times that you’re actually trying to sit down and focus, which I hope were really helpful. But the thing is, your capacity for executive attention has become so depleted by all those digital distractions, and your constant attempts to multitask, that it’s going to take more than a few sessions of focused work to build it back up.

[00:04:22] The tips from the last episode might help you to concentrate long enough to get something really important done, when it really matters. But in order to make focusing come more easily to you, and feel like less of a struggle, what you really need to work on is building your capacity for executive attention back up in a more general sense.

[00:04:42] Now, there are lots of ways to do this, and we’re going to be exploring some of them over the next couple of episodes. But, in case you hadn’t guessed by now from my little love letter to the cherry blossom trees, one of the ways that you can improve your executive attention is by exposing yourself to nature.

[00:04:58] Unsurprisingly, exposure to nature has been linked to a whole host of benefits way beyond improved attentional control. It’s been shown to improve your working memory, cognitive flexibility, mood, empathy, cooperation, and also to reduce stress and the risk of some psychiatric disorders. Exactly how this all happens is the subject of ongoing research, but there are a few key theories in play that may explain why nature helps to restore your brain in this way.

[00:05:29] The first is known as the Biophilia Hypothesis. The Biophilia Hypothesis is the idea that, as humans, we have an innate, evolutionary-based affinity for nature and other living things. And we have this instinctive connection to the natural world because of our long history of living in and depending on it.

[00:05:48] According to the Biophilia Hypothesis, we have a natural attraction to plants, animals, landscapes and other natural elements because our ancestors were hunter-gatherers who relied on the natural environment for survival. So, exposure to nature may activate a soft fascination that captures your attention in a way that is effortless and pleasurable. This state of fascination may happen when you encounter novel or interesting elements in the natural environment, such as a beautiful view, a rustling tree, a babbling brook, which pretty much describes my encounter with the cherry blossom trees on my dog walk.

[00:06:23] Now, when you’re in a state of soft fascination, your attention is captured in a way that is involuntary, which allows your directed attention to rest and recover. And it’s this effortless restoration of attentional resources that may lead to improvements in your executive attention, which explains why you probably find that you’re able to focus better and sustain your focus on demanding tasks after spending time in nature.

[00:06:47] The Biophilia Hypothesis is pretty well-established and has even influenced the design of buildings, cities, and other human-made environments. By incorporating natural elements such as plants, sunlight, and water features, designers and architects are trying to create spaces that promote wellbeing and connection to the natural world. Because the hypothesis suggests that our connection to nature is an essential part of our humanity, with important implications for our health, happiness, and sense of meaning in life.

[00:07:19] The second theory is known as the Stress Reduction Hypothesis, and it’s the idea that exposure to nature triggers a physiological response that lowers your stress, making it easier for you to direct your attentional resources towards more focused tasks. Research has shown that exposure to nature can have a number of positive effects on your mental and physical health. For example, studies have found that spending time in nature can reduce levels of cortisol, your stress hormone, lower your blood pressure, and improve your mood. So nature reduces stress and promotes relaxation, which is so important to understand in this hectic modern lifestyle that we all live.

[00:07:57] Our lives are too often characterised by high levels of stress, being always on or always connected through our devices, and being indoors instead of outside in nature. And if you’ve listened to Episode 1, then you may remember that when you’re stressed and your cortisol level increases, there’s a corresponding decrease in activity in your prefrontal cortex, which is the home of your willpower, and of course your executive attention.

[00:08:22] So you end up reverting back to habits as a default behavior when you feel stressed, regardless of how strong you might think your willpower is, because stress uses up a lot of energy and your brain tries to conserve it. Which means that if you’re trying to focus and concentrate on a complex task, even when you know that it’s super important or time-sensitive, if you’re getting stressed out, you’ll still end up giving in to the urge to check your phone, or your email, or browse the internet.

[00:08:49] So by taking a break that exposes you to nature, for example, going for a walk in the park, you can effectively lower your stress, allowing your cognitive resources to build themselves back up, so that your willpower and executive attention are restored, and you can maintain concentration on the task at hand when you come back.

[00:09:08] The third theory is known as the Attention Restoration Theory, and it’s almost identical to the Biophilia theory in terms of how your attention becomes restored, it just doesn’t ground this in our evolutionary biology. And in many ways, it indirectly encapsulates the Stress Reduction Hypothesis too. The Attention Restoration Theory suggests that spending time in nature can help to restore your attentional resources that have been depleted because of you completing sustained periods of directed attention, such as working or studying.

[00:09:39] The Attention Restoration Theory is the idea that looking at or being in nature provides an escape from routine, opening you up to feelings of fascination and exploration by invoking that same involuntary attention, allowing your prefrontal cortex to dial down from these periods of intense focus and rest. Effortlessly restoring your capacity for executive attention in the process.

[00:10:02] If you’ve listened to Episode 1, then you’ll remember that your cognitive resources are limited, a bit like a battery, and you need to allow your battery to get charged back up in order for it to be fully operational. Some of that recharging takes place when you sleep, but what the Attention Restoration Theory suggests is that you might be able to achieve some recharging when you’re awake, by exposing yourself to nature.

[00:10:25] So, exposure to nature gets a big tick for restoring your executive attention, regardless of exactly how that happens. But there are two main questions that you might be asking yourself before you go sashaying off into the wilderness: 1) exactly how long do you need to be exposed to nature for, and 2) exactly what environments constitute nature? And I have at least partial answers to those questions based on the research evidence.

[00:10:51] So first up, how long do you need to be exposed to nature for? Well, the amount of time needed to experience improvements in executive attention from exposure to nature can vary depending on a number of factors, including the individual, the type of nature exposure, and the specific cognitive tasks that you’re hoping to perform with this improved focus. Because there were lots of different types of tasks used in the design of the various experiments that were conducted by researchers.

[00:11:18] Some studies have found that even brief exposure to nature can lead to improvements. In one study, students who looked at a flowering green roof for 40 seconds midway through an attention-draining task made significantly fewer mistakes than those who looked at a concrete rooftop for the same amount of time. And another study found that participants who took a 50 minute walk in nature showed improved performance on a task that required attentional control compared to those who took a walk in an urban environment.

[00:11:46] But other studies have suggested that longer exposure to nature may be needed to experience the full benefits. One study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that spending three days in nature was associated with significant improvements in cognitive performance and reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety. Which, to me, kind of reinforces why holidays that take you out of the city are so restorative.

[00:12:09] Overall, the research on the duration of nature exposure needed to improve executive attention is still relatively new and, ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. But I think it’s safe to say that even brief exposure to nature can have positive effects on executive attention, and it’s worth remembering that there are lots of other positive benefits, like elevated mood, that are great for your wellbeing.

[00:12:31] So, on balance, I would say 30 minutes of exposure is better than nothing at all, and around an hour is probably the sweet spot when it comes to your day-to-day routine. And of course, if you can escape into nature for a couple of days at a time, whether that’s a little domestic weekend trip to the countryside, or a longer break to somewhere more far flung that allows you to get into the forest, up a mountain, or sit back and relax beside the sea, then you definitely should, because it will do wonders for your executive attention.

[00:13:00] Which brings me squarely to the second question, which is what exactly are we talking about when we say exposure to nature? And here’s where things get really interesting. First off, it’s thought that exposure to blue spaces, like rivers, lakes, oceans, is as beneficial as exposure to green spaces like parks and forests, even though there is currently less research into blue spaces.

[00:13:24] Which means that if you don’t have easy access to a green space, or you’re not a fan of the mud or the bugs, then you can get the same benefits by going for a walk along a canal or a river, or if you’re lucky enough to live by the coast, then along the seafront. It also means that if a three day trek up a mountain or camping out in the forest is not really your thing, then a beach or lakeside holiday where you can gaze out at the water will serve you just as well.

[00:13:49] When it comes to green spaces, one of the simplest things you can do, based on the study where the students looked at the flowering green roof for 40 seconds, is to put a few plants around your desk or position yourself next to a window where you can see greenery, like trees or flowers, every time you look up.

[00:14:05] For longer exposure, the best thing to do is incorporate daily walks into your routine, and make sure that those walks take you through parks, gardens or woodlands. And of course, if you’re lucky enough to have a garden, then even a few laps around the lawn should work wonders for your attention.

[00:14:21] Now, I recognise that so much of this is dependent on your location. I’m really lucky, in that, I have so many different options on my doorstep in London, and a great excuse in Luna the dog to make sure I get out each day. We love going to the local park, or to some of the bigger parks like Regent’s Park and Holland Park. We go to Hampstead Heath and Highgate Woods. We walk along the Regent’s Canal at Little Venice. And one of my absolute favourite pastimes is going for strolls along the River Thames down on the South Bank.

[00:14:51] But what if you’re stuck in a concrete urban jungle with fewer options? Well, I have good news for you. Apparently, our brains are not that smart, and so exposure to images of nature or artificial nature can still help to restore your executive attention. And this is great if you don’t have access to real nature, or in times when escaping to nature might be a bit impractical.

[00:15:13] Research comparing people who walked outside in either natural or urban settings, with people who watched videos of those same settings, found that both exposure to nature in person and via video led to improvements in attention. The effects were stronger for the people who went outside, so I still suggest that you get outside where you can, but improvement is improvement.

[00:15:34] So, if you’re in a pinch, you could think about putting up pictures or prints of nature in your home or workspace. I have a friend who lived in Spain for a year many years ago in a room with no windows, and she bought one of those giant decals that sticks to the wall without any nails or glue to replicate a window looking out over a nature scene. Quite frankly, it was probably the only reason she survived in a windowless room for 12 months without going crazy. But as you can see, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

[00:16:02] You can also make your desktop and meeting backgrounds natural scenes, like the beach or the forest. And I have to say, I do this from time to time, and it’s surprisingly relaxing and energising. I also experimented for a while with having a beach as my background in Zoom meetings, and the people I was having calls with said that, rather than it being distracting, it was actually quite soothing. So, something to try. And, of course, you could hop on YouTube, type in “beach in the Maldives,” and sit back and stare at crystal clear waters for half an hour.

[00:16:31] What this also means for those of you who would like to get more plants into your environment, but have previously avoided doing so because you’re not particularly green fingered and usually kill houseplants within a week, is that you can use artificial plants for the same effect. And I have to tell you, that this is literally me.

[00:16:48] Houseplants and I have a rather fractitious relationship. And when I learned this, I immediately frog marched myself to Ikea and bought every variation of the fejka plant that was going. My mum thinks I went overboard and never hesitates to tell me so when she visits. But I have to say that having all this greenery in my home, everywhere from my office to the kitchen, living room, and even the bathroom, has completely changed the space. It’s so energising to gaze around the room and see my plants. It makes me so happy. And it makes me even happier that I don’t have to water them or worry about them dying!

[00:17:22] The final, and somewhat unexpected, thing about exposure to nature in the context of executive attention is that even the sound of nature can be restorative. Research showed that participants who listened to nature sounds, for example crickets chirping or waves crashing on the shore, performed better in difficult cognitive tasks that, by their nature, require attention and focus, than those participants that listened to urban sounds like traffic.

[00:17:48] So again, while we can’t all live beside the sea, and many of us wouldn’t want to live in the middle of the jungle, we can mimic these sounds in our environment using technology. You can buy sound machines or use the sounds in your alarm clock. I talked about my Lumie alarm clock in a previous episode and it does a great line in two different types of birdsong, and what I believe is a Brazilian tree frog sound. But equally, a quick search on Spotify or YouTube will give you access to the sounds of nature. And then all you have to do is close your eyes, kick back, and imagine you’re right in the middle of it for a little bit of effortless attention restoration.

[00:18:25] That’s it for today’s episode, I hope that you’ve enjoyed it. And if you’ve ever struggled to incorporate nature into your day-to-day routines or your environment, then hopefully I’ve given you some practical ways to do it, so that you can reap all the benefits of exposure to nature for your executive attention.

[00:18:41] You can find the show notes for today’s episode over on my website at thedigitaldietcoach.com/007. And, as always, if you do decide to start taking more walks in nature, go on an artificial plant spending spree in Ikea like I did, or you simply find a great video of the gently lapping blue waves of the Maldives, then I’d love to hear about it.

[00:19:04] You can either leave a comment on your social media platform of choice, all my handles can be found on the show notes page so that you can tag me and I’ll see it. Or you can email me directly at podcast@thedigitaldietcoach.com, and I promise to respond to every single message. I know you’re busy and your time is incredibly valuable. So, as always, I thank you for choosing to spend a little of your day with me and I’ll see you next time.

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Marisha Pink

Meet Marisha

Marisha Pink is a Certified Digital Wellness Coach who is on a mission to empower women everywhere to live life more intentionally in an age of digital distractions. She helps women create healthier digital habits that better balance the technology in their lives, so that they can take back control of their time, reclaim their happiness, and live their best lives offline.

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