Motivation and emotion/Book/2016/Attention restoration theory

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Attention Restoration Theory:
What is the ART, what is the evidence, and how can it be applied?


There is a good chance that at the moment you are sitting down at a desk, in a dark room or the library, with no views of the natural world. Instead, pick up your laptop and head outside! You will be taking your first steps towards implementing Attention Restoration Theory in your personal life and hopefully seeing the psychologically restorative benefits of nature by the end of this chapter.

Mental fatigue negatively affects all of our lives. Attention Restoration Theory (ART) help to understand how to overcome mental fatigue and improve our ability to concentrate. ART argues that, after spending time in the natural environment, people are better able to focus their attention. The theory also suggests that even just looking at pictures of a natural environment can positively affect a person’s ability to concentrate. This chapter will investigate motivation, attention, the research behind ART, disorders linked to nature, and the practical application of ART in everyday life.


Find out how involved you are with nature by taking this short quiz.


Do you go outside for your breaks at work?



Do you have any paintings or photos of nature in your house?



Do you have plants in your work space or office?



Do you have a garden or vegetable patch?



Do you exercise in natural environments?


How did you go? Correct answers show that you are actively engaging with nature where possible, incorrect answers show areas you could improve on. If you got some of these questions wrong, you might need to start trying to add some extra nature time into your everyday life. This will help your ability to focus and should leave you feeling more positive both psychologically and physiologically. This chapter will explain the research and evidence behind this theory.


Motivation is a theoretic construct that cannot really be perfectly defined; it is subject to individual differences including perspectives and experiences. However, most of us would generally accept that motivation is the unknown force that makes us get up and actually do stuff. How do we increase or decrease levels of motivation? And how is motivation related to the attention restoration theory?

There are many theories on what motivation is and what causes it, but there are two theorists who created standout models; Clark Hull and Abraham Maslow. Their theories are similar in the way that they derive from the idea that human beings have certain base needs that must be satisfied before other wants and needs become apparent.

Figure 1. Clark Hull, known for his work on drive theory.

Hull's drive reduction theory[edit]

Hull’s theory was one of the first attempts to really understand and explain motivation. The theory is heavily reliant on homeostasis and that biological motives are the most influential factors in motivation (Hull, 1951). According to Hull, biological imbalances create motivation, pushing a person to become motivated to satisfy these needs (Hull, 1951). This could be hunger, which is biologically the need for more energy, thus making motivation the thing that eradicates the deficiency (Graham & Weiner, 1996). This behavioural arousal from a physiological need is what Hull called drive and ultimately what powers all behaviour (Graham & Weiner, 1996). Drive reduction theory does not address cognitive motives and Hull would have argued that these were wants, not actual needs. Hull’s theory is not very applicable in modern times as further research has proven that humans have more than basic physiological needs. However, it did set the foundations for modern motivation research and led to further, more practical theories.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs[edit]

Figure 2. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

Abraham Maslow sought to understand what it was that motivated people. His research concluded that motivation could be depicted by a pyramid comprising of five different levels, known as Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

By considering Maslow’s hierarchy, we might be able to increase general levels of motivation in people within the workplace. If an employee is hungry and tired they are obviously not going to perform to the best of their abilities (DeMarco & Lister, 1987). On the next level up, if an employee feels vulnerable to sexual harassment at work they are not going to be as productive either. This will also affect the next levels involving relationships and self-esteem. If employers want optimal performance, they need to encourage an environment where everyone feels physically satisfied, safe and supported, as well as being a valuable member of staff (DeMarco & Lister, 1987). According to the theory, if all of these needs are satisfied people will progress to the optimum level of self-actualisation.

So we can see that motivation is comprised of both physiological and cognitive needs. As humans we physiologically need food but we also have cognitive needs like relationships, learning and goals (Maslow, 1943). Everything we do is motivated by some want or need, but what happens when motivation starts to falter? At university we all have assignments that we want to finish and get a good mark on, so we can get a degree and hopefully a good job. But we all find ourselves at one point or another lacking the motivation to actually do that assignment. We may become bored, uninterested in the topic, or lacking the ability to focus. This is where ART comes in to play and in this chapter we will be investigating how it can be used to motivate us away from such negative feelings.


Figure 3. To maintain and restore attention while studying, opt for a seat with a view of the outside world.

Attention is what allows us to select a stimulus to focus on and apply ourselves to[missing something?], whilst blocking some or all information from other stimuli (Pashler, 1998). Attention is a very big part of our daily lives as we focus on conversations, business meetings or essays. Without attention we would be completely overwhelmed by different stimuli in the environment appealing to all of our senses. Attention allows us to make decisions, solve problems and reason with others. But not every activity in daily life requires attention; things like breathing happen automatically and if attention is directed towards them generally performance will decrease (Pashler, 1998). One of the earliest studies conducted by Cherry (1953) showed how attention can be focused very directly, leaving other stimuli often completely ignored. His experiment involved people listening to two separate recordings through headphones and then repeating one back. The participants focused so intently on the first message that they were unable to recall barely any information from the other recording (Cherry, 1953).

When posed with a task like this, most of us would probably do the same thing, showing very high levels of directed attention to a singular stimulus. But what happens in real life when we are trying to do an assignment and are distracted by Facebook, making plans for the weekend or talking with friends? We are not able to focus on our work and have divided our attention towards many different things. ART can help to improve our focus and, if that concentration has already been lost, provides a guide about how to restore attention to optimal levels.

Research & evidence [Provide more detail][edit]

Early theorists interested in attention such as Olmsted (1865) and James (1892) concluded that there was a possibility attention had certain limits before fatigue was experienced. They also recognised that, for those in urban landscapes, it was harder to recover this attention without the context of a natural environment. This led to the work of key modern theorists Stephen Kaplan, Rachel Kaplan and Roger Ulrich and their interest in the restorative benefits of nature. The Kaplans' (1982) research focuses on how nature recovers the capacity to focus attention, while Ulrich’s research emphasises the ability nature has on reducing stress and fear (Kaplan, 1995).

Kaplan and Kaplan[edit]

The Kaplans are environmental psychologists who proposed ART as a framework for combatting fatigue of directed attention. ART hypothesises that, in modern, urban environments, a person’s directed attention can easily become fatigued (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1982). In order to restore the amount of available directed attention, exposure to a natural setting can return the individual to a normal functioning state. Different studies look at the difference in results between putting the participants in a natural environment such as a park, viewing images of nature, or even having a view of nature through their window. All have been found to be effective, especially when compared to control participants who remain in urban landscapes or are shown images of cityscapes (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989).

The Kaplans identified four different states of attention that a person can be in:

Table 1. States of attention, adapted from Kaplan and Kaplan (1989).

Directed Attention When people must make the effort to focus on a specific task and block out other distractions, eventually causing fatigue. In this state other emotions and actions are usually inhibited. Research by DeMarco and Lister (1988) found that in an office environment it can take 15 minutes for employees to achieve this state of focus, however it can be destroyed in a moment by a distraction such as a telephone call.
Effortless Attention When the person has a genuine interest in the task and is able to focus without boredom or much effort. As seen in directed attention, they are still susceptible to fatigue resulting in a need to restore levels of attention (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989).
Directed Attention Fatigue When a person has directed their attention on a certain task for a prolonged period of time. As attention levels become fatigued, the person becomes irritable and distracted (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). It is at this stage the person needs to find restoration through natural settings.
Restored Attention After becoming fatigued, the person must then engage with nature. This will be a change from the scenario that induced the fatigue, allowing for a period of reflection (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). This change and calming environment allows for directed attention levels to be restored, so the person can return to their original task with increased levels of focus.

ART states that attentional fatigue happens due to the overuse of the neural inhibitory mechanism which underlies the ability to block out competing stimuli (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1982). When a person is trying to focus their attention on one task and there are distracting stimuli in the environment, the individual has to use far more inhibitory effort to suppress the competing stimuli. When this system is overused it becomes fatigued and results in a reduced capacity to direct attention (Tennessen & Cimprich, 1995).

Q. So is the theory basically saying that if I start feeling irritated with an essay, I should just go outside and stare at some trees?

A. That should definitely help, but there are some other factors to consider as well!

Kaplan (1995) says that in order for nature to have restorative effects, four properties must be present:

  1. Extent – the possibility of being able to feel immersed in the environment. There must be rich enough content for the environment to be perceived as a completely different place to the one that caused fatigue (Kaplan, 1995).
  2. Being away – the avoidance and escape from routine activities that lead to attention fatigue (Kaplan, 1995). This can be done by getting out of the office to take a walk in the park, but to be effective a complete change in mental content from what caused the fatigue is also required.
  3. Soft fascination – aspects of the natural environment must be able to effortlessly capture attention. Because fascination is an involuntary attention it does not require effort and allows for the attentional system to rest and restore. Soft fascination must be aesthetically pleasing to the viewer and moderate in intensity (Herzog, Black, Fountaine & Knotts, 1997).  It differs from hard fascination such as watching a football match, which requires lots of attention and does not allow for reflection.
  4. Compatibility – there must be a want emanating from the individual to be exposed to the environment and a want to appreciate it (Felsten, 2009).


Ulrich’s research is similar to the Kaplans' in that it finds nature to have cognitive benefits. His model differs as it is more heavily based on emotional and physiological responses to threatening stimuli, as opposed to attention based deficits (Hartig, Mang, & Evans, 1991). Ulrich’s work also differs as he says that the benefits of nature occur because of a reduction in arousal, instead of replenishment of attentional capacity. Ulrich states that nature has a calming effect because it is a stimulus that blocks negative feelings and encourages positive emotional states. This means there is a reduction in neurophysiological arousal and a more continual interest in the natural environment (Hartig et al., 1991).

Figure 4. Patients in hospital rooms with natural views reported better recovery from surgery than those with no views.[factual?]

Ulrich found that psycho-physiological stress has negative effects on cognitive performance. He was also interested in the physiological benefits nature could provide and his most well-known study investigated patients recovering from abdominal surgery[factual?]. He found that the patients who had hospital rooms overlooking trees or parks reported fewer complications and required less pain medication than those who only had views of walls (Berto, 2014). Ulrich also found that patients recovering from heart surgery were able to reduce anxiety levels and also their need for medication by simply looking at pictures of natural settings[factual?]. These findings run parallel to those of Kaplan and Kaplan, that even viewing depictions of nature can have positive effects. Based on his research, Ulrich has created guidelines he says all designers of health-care facilities should follow. He proposes incorporating features such as natural views from all rooms, nature-related artwork, aquariums in waiting areas and garden areas that patients can benefit from (Berto, 2014). These proposals could also be used in the design of schools, office buildings and suburban areas to encourage the positive and restorative effects on attention found by Kaplan and Kaplan.

Supporting evidence[edit]

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So far this sounds like a great, simple theory, but what other supporting research is there?

Hartig, Mang and Evans (1991) compared the difference in proofreading performance between three different groups. Group one took a vacation in the wilderness, group two took a city break and group three had no vacation. Pre and post test scores were compared with only the group taking a wilderness holiday showing improvement. Another experiment with random assignment of college students found that those who went for a walk in a park performed better on the same task than students who went for a walk in an urban setting or simply relaxed inside.

Cimprich (1993) investigated women who had surgery for breast cancer because they commonly report attention deficits. Cimprich (1993) found that those who participated in activities in a natural setting, such as gardening, reported improved attention compared to those who did not interact with nature.

Tennessen and Cimprich (1995) studied the effect of views of nature compared to urban settings. They found that college students with a view purely of nature through their windows performed better on directed attention tests than those who had a partial view or completely urban view.

Wells (2000) found children with attention deficit disorder that largely increased their interaction with nature had a greater improvement in functioning compared to those who did not increase exposure.

Kaplan (2001) found that residents in apartment blocks with views of nature reported feeling more attentive and relaxed than residents who did not have a view of nature. Kaplan (2001) stated that indirect contact with nature such as having a view is still effective for attention restoration.

Berto (2005) showed students images of restorative nature scenes on a computer or images of non-restorative urban scenes. The students who viewed the scenes of nature showed improvement in attentional capacity testing, while the urban group did not improve.

Measuring restoration[edit]

The Perceived Restorativeness Scale (PRS) was introduced in 1996 to assess the impact of different environments on restorative qualities (Hartig, Kaiser & Bowler, 1997). It is aimed at measuring an individual’s perception of restorative factors that are assumed to be present in the environment. The PRS is based on ART and initially comprised 26 items assessing each factor on a seven point scale. It has been used in research to confirm the positive restorative effects nature has on attention and cognition. Currently, it is being widely used for town planning purposes, particularly in Scandinavian cities (Rennit & Maikov, 2015). Designers are being encouraged to create spaces that allow for healthy individuals both cognitively and physically. The PRS shows which positive factors people think are currently present in the environment and which factors they place high importance on, or that designers should focus on.

Psychological conditions linked to nature and attention[edit]

[Provide more detail]

Nature deficit disorder[edit]

Figure 5. People are spending less time in the natural environment.

Nature deficit disorder is a modern phenomenon in which humans, particularly children, are losing touch with nature and the outdoors which is resulting in a range of physical and behavioural issues (Stiffler, 2007). As humans become more alienated from the natural world and more focussed on the digital realm, problems such as obesity, depression and bullying arise. Parents are trying to keep their children safer than ever, due to fears of strangers and nature itself. Cities are becoming concrete landscapes, with restricted amounts of green lands and parks. A lot of grassed and gardened areas have signs saying do no touch and whilst this may be protecting the environment, our children are no longer connected to nature (Louv, 2005). Disengagement from nature can promote the development of attention disorders and depression, as there is a strong correlation between children not spending enough time in nature and these disorders. By regularly spending time outside in the calm and quiet environment attention deficit symptoms in children can be significantly reduced (Louv, 2005).

Seasonal affective disorder[edit]

Figure 6. Seasonal affective disorder is common in Northern Europe where daylight hours can be extremely long or extremely short.

Seasonal affective disorder involves recurrence of depression or bipolar disorders based on what season it is. Usually the depressive symptoms occur in the lead up to, and during, winter and lower or disappear in the warmer months. It is particularly common in Northern hemisphere locations, particularly places like Iceland that barely get four hours of sunlight per day during the winter months. Treatment usually involves vitamins or artificial light exposure, to replicate the benefits of the natural sun that is missing (Partonen & Lönnqvist, 1998). Seasonal affective disorder shows the reliance that humans have on nature to remain healthy and why we should not be distancing ourselves from nature.

Biophilia hypothesis[edit]

Figure 8. There is an instinctive bond between humans and other living organisms.

A philia is an attraction or positive feeling towards a certain thing in the environment and the opposite of a phobia, which is an aversion of something in the environment. Biophilia means the love of life, or living systems. The Biophilia hypothesis is based upon there being an instinctive bond between humans and other living organisms and ecosystems (Wilson, 1984). This instinctive bond encourages us to connect with other life forms on a subconscious level. This bond is a product of biological evolution and is proven in the positive emotional responses people have towards baby animals, when humans save and care for wild animals and by growing plants or flowers around their homes (Wilson, 1984). The biophilia hypothesis basically says that our biological love for life helps to actually sustain other lifeforms.

Practical tips to improve your own attention![edit]

  • In an exam, try and sit near a window
  • On your lunch break at work try and sit outside in a park, or at least near a window with a view of nature
  • Hang paintings or photos of natural scenes around the home
  • When working or studying, try and have a view of the natural environment
  • Put a beautiful landscape as your background on your laptop or phone
  • Try and go for a half hour walk through a nature reserve or park each day
  • Take up an outdoor hobby that involves nature, such as gardening or a field sport
  • When building or renovating a house, try and include big windows with views of a garden especially in rooms like the study
  • If you are going on holiday try and book outdoor mountain or beach breaks as opposed to city breaks
  • Instead of going to the gym, try doing your workout in the park


In summary, the collective research on ART has found that natural settings are more restorative of attention than urban settings. Whether the natural setting is experienced through images, windows or by directly placing oneself in the environment, all have been found to be effective. We are all motivated to do certain tasks like go to work or write essays that we might find difficult to concentrate on. This requires directed attention to focus on the task at hand and this type of attention can become easily fatigued. Hopefully by learning about the basics of ART, you will try and incorporate nature into your everyday life to see the restorative benefits nature can bring.

See also[edit]


Berto, R. (2005). Exposure to restorative environments helps restore attentional capacity. Journal of Environmental Psychology25(3), 249-259. DOI:10.1016/j.jenvp.2005.07.001

Berto, R. (2014). The Role of Nature in Coping with Psycho-Physiological Stress: A Literature Review on Restorativeness. Behavioural Sciences4(4), 394-409. DOI:10.3390/bs4040394

Cherry, E. (1953). Some Experiments on the Recognition of Speech, with One and with Two Ears. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America25(5), 975. DOI: 10.1121/1.1907229

Cimprich, B. (1993). Development of an intervention to restore attention in cancer patients. Cancer Nursing16(2), 83-92. DOI:10.1097/00002820-199304000-00001

DeMarco, T. & Lister, T. (1987). Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams. New York, NY: Dorset House Publishing Company.

Felsten, G. (2009). Where to take a study break on the college campus: An attention restoration theory perspective. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29(1), 160-167. DOI:10.1016/j.jenvp.2008.11.006

Graham, S., & Weiner, B. (1996). Theories and principles of motivation. Handbook of educational psychology, 4, 63-84.

Hartig, T., Kaiser, F.G., & Bowler, P.A. (1997). Further development of a measure of perceived environmental restorativeness. Working Paper No. 5. Institute for Housing Research, Uppsala Universitet.

Hartig, T., Korpela, K., Evans, G., & Gärling, T. (1997). A measure of restorative quality in environments. Scandinavian Housing and Planning Research14(4), 175-194. DOI:10.1080/02815739708730435

Hartig, T., Mang, M., & Evans, G. (1991). Restorative Effects of Natural Environment Experiences. Environment and Behaviour23(1), 3-26. DOI:10.1177/0013916591231001

Herzog, T., Black, A., Fountaine, K., & Knotts, D. (1997). Reflection and Attentional Recovery as Distinctive Benefits of Restorative Environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology17(2), 165-170. DOI:10.1006/jevp.1997.0051

Hull, C. (1951). Essentials of behavior. New Haven: Published for the Institute of Human Relations by Yale University Press.

James, W. (1892). Psychology: The briefer course. New York: Holt.

Kaplan, R. (2001). The Nature of the View from Home: Psychological Benefits. Environment and Behaviour33(4), 507-542. DOI:10.1177/00139160121973115

Kaplan, R. & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology15(3), 169-182. DOI:10.1016/0272-4944(95)90001-2

Kaplan, S. & Kaplan, R. (1982). Cognition and environment. New York: Praeger.

Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review50(4), 370-396. DOI:10.1037/h0054346

Olmsted, F. L. (1865). The value and care of parks. The American environment: Readings in the history of conservation. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, pp. 18–24.

Partonen, T. & Lönnqvist, J. (1998). Seasonal affective disorder. The Lancet352(9137), 1369-1374. DOI:10.1016/s0140-6736(98)01015-0

Pashler, H. (1998). The psychology of attention. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Rennit, P. & Maikov, K. (2015). Perceived restoration scale method turned into (used as the) evaluation tool for parks and open green spaces, using Tartu city parks as an example. City Territ Archit2(1). DOI:10.1186/s40410-014-0020-3

Stiffler, L. (2007). Parents worry about 'nature-deficit disorder' in kids. Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Tennessen, C. & Cimprich, B. (1995). Views to nature: Effects on attention. Journal of Environmental Psychology15(1), 77-85. DOI:10.1016/0272-4944(95)90016-0

Wells, N. (2000). At Home with Nature: Effects of "Greenness" on Children's Cognitive Functioning. Environment and Behaviour32(6), 775-795. DOI:10.1177/00139160021972793

Wilson, E. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

External links[edit]

Category;Motivation and emotion/Book/AttentionCategory;Motivation and emotion/Book/Nature