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4. In Search of a Clear Head
It hasn’t been an unusually challenging period for Stan, but he’s not been feeling in top form. Things at work are settling in after the reorganization of a year ago, and he enjoys the demands and responsibilities of his job. His wife’s travel schedule has been reduced so she’s only gone once or twice per month for a few days. Their children are wonderful, a bit on the high-energy side but wonderful. He has been looking forward to learning the features of his new phone, which seems to have all of the capacity, and some of the complexity, of a supercomputer. He’s learning a couple of new social media applications for both work and home. He and his wife are planning a trip to get away from it all. He feels too busy, but doesn’t everybody these days?
Why, then, isn’t he on top of his game? He’s noticed that he isn’t as patient with colleagues, the kids, or people in general lately. He thinks of himself as a competent, thoughtful person. But recently he hasn’t felt competent; he’s felt harried, disorganized, and prone to mistakes. Yesterday, he snapped at a colleague during a meeting to work out some of the details of the next phase of reorganization at work. Why is he resisting? He tells himself that he is feeling depleted and that he just needs to try harder.
It’s difficult to act in a reasonable way when you don’t have a clear head—when you are feeling harried, disorganized, and prone to mistakes. It is much easier to act reasonably when your head is clear—when you are feeling attentive, competent, and patient. With surprising consistency, most of us loop back and forth between times when we do not have a clear head and when we do. What is largely invisible, however, is the extent to which a single resource impacts our clearheadedness. This resource is our capacity to direct our attention—that is, to pay attention.
In terms of supporting reasonable behavior, our capacity to pay attention is a powerful force. It can arrest an impertinent thought before you speak it, encourage you to hang in there a bit longer in the search for a broadly acceptable solution, allow you to attend to the details at hand, or resist the urge to jump to conclusions (S. Kaplan & Kaplan, 1982). That our capacity to pay attention is often in short supply is evidenced by our all too familiar failures of competence and civility. Stan is feeling the consequences of having low levels of this resource.
In this chapter, we’ll examine Attention Restoration Theory (ART) and its essential role in the Reasonable Person Model (RPM). ART is a framework that grows from the recognition that information is central to human effectiveness and well-being (S. Kaplan, 1995; S. Kaplan & Kaplan, 1982). We’ll argue that our capacity to direct our attention (that is, to pay attention) is necessary for almost everything we care about doing (including being reasonable) and that although it is a limited resource—we often run out of this capacity before our work is complete—it can also be restored.
Next, we will explore some predictions and evidence regarding how physical settings impact our capacity to direct attention and will focus on the special role of the natural environment in restoring attentional functioning. We’ll end by considering the implications of these ideas for the quest to bring out the best in people.
Attention Restoration Theory
Humans evolved in spite of our lack of great strength or speed in large part because of our ability to deal effectively with information (S. Kaplan & Kaplan, 1982). Our large brains gave us the capacity to recognize situations, anticipate what would happen next, and plan for the future. Our ancestors depended on their ability to process information for their survival.
As one would expect from any characteristic that was central to the evolution of a species, information retains its salience for humans today. Humans care deeply about information, and our effective functioning depends on it. We are highly motivated to understand what is going on—as R. Kaplan (Chapter 2) and Ivancich (Chapter 5) illustrate, it is a common human trait that we hate being confused or disoriented. At the same time, we are highly motivated to learn, to discover, and to explore (S. Kaplan, 2000).
Our ability to process information, however, is not without its limitations. Perhaps the most important limitation is that our capacity to pay attention fatigues (S. Kaplan, 1995). We have all felt this mental fatigue.
Stan’s sense that he’s been harried, disorganized, and prone to mistakes is consistent with the classic signs of mental fatigue. Mental fatigue is a state with which you are likely familiar. It occurs after a period of focused attention and can leave you feeling worn out, depleted, and yearning for a break. You may have experienced mental fatigue after a prolonged meeting, near the end of an intense week, or after preparing an important proposal or reviewing a set of proposals. Students and teachers feel mentally fatigued at multiple times during a semester but particularly at the end of a term. Intensive planning and problem solving can induce mental fatigue. (Have you ever felt mentally spent after planning a vacation or trip?) Mental fatigue can also be induced by living in a dangerous setting, with a difficult person, or without enough resources to meet your needs.
In order to understand how one might become mentally fatigued and how to recover from it, we turn our focus to ART (S. Kaplan, 1995; S. Kaplan & Kaplan, 1982). ART recognizes that humans have two modes for absorbing information—through involuntary attention and through directed attention. Let’s consider each.
Involuntary attention. Involuntary attention is relatively effortless and includes attending to things that are fascinating. Think of a campfire, a waterfall, or a skunk that has just crossed your path. When sitting by the campfire, you don’t make a conscious decision to pay attention to the fire. On the contrary, you often find yourself absorbed by the fire before you are aware of it.
There are a host of things and activities that are fascinating for humans. Some of these are softly fascinating—gardening, bird-watching, walking in the woods. Attending to softly fascinating things allows you to carry out some task—collecting firewood for instance—without filling your head. Other things and activities are so fascinating that they completely absorb you and thus leave no capacity for thinking about something else. This so-called hard fascination includes such things as intense competitions, many television programs and movies, an object flying toward you, and most forms of aggression and violence. No matter how interesting you find this chapter, if a fight should break out nearby as you are reading this book, it would take an extraordinary effort to focus your attention on your reading rather than watching the conflict play out.
Directed attention. The second mode of attending to information requires one to direct attention (or to pay attention). Directing your attention requires effort. In order to pay attention to this chapter, for instance, you have to exclude from your awareness two sources of distraction: activities and input from your surrounding environment (e.g., the nearby conversation, the smell of food cooking, the new text on your phone) and all the thoughts that are running around in your head. After an intense or extended period of focusing your attention, the capacity to keep these distractions at bay fatigues, and it becomes harder and harder to keep your mind on the task at hand.
Concentrating in this way—that is, expending effort to direct your attention—for an extended period of time leads to mental fatigue. This is true even for topics that you enjoy and in which you want to engage. There is no shortage of opportunities for us to become mentally fatigued. We live within a constant surge of information at work and, increasingly, in our leisure activities too.
The costs of mental fatigue can be considerable. Individuals who are mentally fatigued are less attentive than they are when they are not fatigued. They are more likely to make mistakes, miss subtle social cues, be forgetful, and be distracted. They are likely to report that making decisions takes a great deal more effort than usual. They are likely to be irritable.
Why is this important? For two reasons. First, just about everything we seek to accomplish depends on our ability to direct our attention. This includes things that may seem mundane (e.g., getting to dinner on time), responding to a loved one by actually listening, succeeding in school or a career, being a good and consistent parent, making a difference in the world, and treating others with respect and kindness. Put another way, being able to pay attention is fundamental to being able to accomplish things that we care about.
Second, it is important because people who are mentally fatigued are often in an emotional state that works against their capacity to behave in a reasonable fashion. Feeling irritable and impulsive is unlikely to promote competence. Compared to when you have a clear head, it is significantly more difficult to listen with patience and to respond with respect when you are mentally fatigued. A person in a mentally fatigued state is less likely to act in reasonable ways than when that same person is feeling more restored.
So far we have seen that we have two modes for paying attention. One takes little effort (involuntary attention) and is not subject to fatigue. The other requires considerable effort (directed attention, or paying attention) and is subject to fatigue. When we are mentally fatigued, we are in a state that works against our effectiveness or our capacity to be reasonable. Next, we consider how physical settings impact mental fatigue. There is some bad news and some good news for us to consider.
Think for a moment about a time when you were mentally fatigued—you may have just finished a major project, or perhaps you had simply been going about your daily routine. Now, imagine a place that would be restorative, a place that would allow you to clear your head and regain your capacity to focus, see things clearly, and feel on top of your game.
ART proposes that such a restorative place have four characteristics. Let’s consider each.
Being away. The first characteristic of a restorative setting may be obvious—you need to be away from the attentionally fatiguing activities. You can get away by changing your physical location (e.g., by going to the beach) or by deciding to do something different—instead of working on that proposal, you can work in the garden (S. Kaplan, 1995). The sense of being away is dependent not so much on changing your physical location as it is on changing the content of your thoughts and especially of your concerns. Stephen Kaplan suggests that you can sometimes achieve the feeling of being away simply by changing your gaze (S. Kaplan, 1995, p. 173). S. Kaplan and Kaplan (1982) have proposed three ways to elicit the psychological sense of being away: eliminating distractions from your surroundings, taking a break from your usual work or responsibilities, and ceasing pursuit of attentionally demanding tasks or activities.
You might experience a feeling of being away if you locked yourself in a dark closet. But doing so would likely not produce a restorative experience. The Kaplans suggest that a sense of extent might also help.
Extent. For a setting to contain extent, it should be “rich enough and coherent enough so that it constitutes a whole other world” (S. Kaplan, 1995, p. 173). Although a setting with extent invites exploration, it need not be physically large. Its content and organization, however, should have sufficient scope to engage one’s mind. A small fishpond can have extent, as can a small garden. Certainly a view to a nearby forest or a visit to a historic site can have extent. Japanese gardens have extent (Herzog, Maguire, & Nebel, 2003; S. Kaplan, 1995). The key to extent is that the setting be either physically or conceptually large enough and coherent enough to allow your mind to drift into it. This process of allowing your thoughts to drift away from your daily activities into something that is rich and nonthreatening seems an important part of a restorative experience. There is evidence that this process is enhanced when the setting contains fascinating objects or processes.
Fascination. Fascinating objects or places have at least one thing in common: they require little or no attentional effort. You can watch a fire, gaze at a waterfall, or pick flowers without exerting attentional effort. While you are engaged with something that is fascinating, your capacity to direct your attention rests and, in doing so, is restored.
There is an important caveat with fascination. Some settings or activities can be so riveting that they leave no capacity for thinking about other things: a young child walking toward a busy street, a close sporting contest, many television programs or movies, some horrific sight. The intense fascination associated with these settings or activities fills one’s head and thus does not allow one to experience the deeper benefits of a restorative experience such as contemplating an important issue.
A more gentle form of fascination—soft fascination—holds one’s attention in a less intense fashion (Herzog, Black, Fountaine, & Knotts, 1997; S. Kaplan & Kaplan, 1982). When you are engaged with softly fascinating stimuli such as watching a sunset, gazing at fish in a pond or birds in a tree, or working in your garden, your attention is held in such a way as to leave some capacity to examine some of the thoughts that have been running around in your head—thoughts, for instance, about the challenges or troubles you are facing. Softly fascinating settings foster a deeply beneficial restorative experience (Herzog, Hayes, Applin, & Weatherly, 2011a; R. Kaplan, Kaplan, & Ryan, 1998).
This description of attentionally demanding activities (e.g., evaluating proposals, dealing with multiple demands at once) and of fascinating activities (e.g., holding a newborn baby, watching songbirds at the bird feeder) may give the impression that paying attention and being effortlessly caught up in something anchor opposite ends of a continuum. But our experiences suggest that the reality is more nuanced. Activities not infrequently are both attentionally demanding and fascinating. Some games or puzzles (e.g., Sudoku) show such combinations. Many aspects of one’s work—even analyzing data or considering how to convey complex information—may have considerable fascination while undeniably requiring effort. Expert architects, designers, and software developers often experience this combination too. If you are engaged in an activity that is both attentionally demanding and fascinating, it is likely that you will be able to pay attention to that activity for a bit longer than a similar activity that lacks the fascination. But after some point, you will find your attentional resources diminished.
Fascination can help extend the period of time that a person can pay attention, and if the fascinating activity is gentle enough, it can be a critical part of a restorative experience. But even a good deal of soft fascination may not be enough to restore your attentional capacities if the environment works against your inclinations or purpose at the moment. Thus, the Kaplans suggest that compatibility is another feature of a restorative experience.
Compatibility. Compatibility concerns the extent to which an environment supports your inclinations and purposes. It involves the fit between what you are trying to accomplish in the moment and the kind of activities supported, encouraged, or demanded by the setting (Herzog et al., 2003, 2011a, 2011b). Take, for instance, a person who needs a break from writing a proposal. She could sit in her office and surf the Internet, or she could take a short walk in the green space next to her office. The latter choice is likely to be far more compatible with her goal of taking a break than the former choice.
As Herzog and his colleagues point out, compatibility “is complex because of its explicit reference to the individual’s goals and inclinations which are many and can be conceptualized as falling on a continuum ranging from very general (to move freely, to be able to see clearly) to very specific (to get gas, to play basketball)” (2003, p. 160). Some settings will work against one’s inclinations, others will meet some of them, and still others will be supportive in most every way. Settings that contain natural elements are often compatible with the kind of activities that lead to restoration.
Kaplan and Kaplan have observed that these four characteristics of restorative places (being away, extent, fascination, and compatibility) are often available in green settings. ART predicts that contact with green landscapes—even in cities—should assist in recovery from mental fatigue (S. Kaplan, 1995; S. Kaplan & Kaplan, 1982). If that is the case, then gaining exposure to natural settings on a regular basis, even natural elements in urban areas, should have a positive impact on attention restoration and thus on our capacity to act in reasonable ways. Is there evidence in support of such predictions?
Yes, an extensive body of empirical evidence has accumulated in support of ART: exposure to green settings consistently boosts a person’s capacity to pay attention. The findings come from very green settings such as large and small forests (Park et al., 2010; Shin, Yeoun, Yoo, & Shin, 2010), rural areas (Roe & Aspinall, 2011), wilderness settings (Hartig, Mang, & Evans, 1991), and prairies (Miles, Sullivan, & Kuo, 1998). But the same is true for more modestly green settings such as community parks (Fuller, Irvine, Devine-Wright, Warren, & Gaston, 2007; Hartig, Evans, Jamner, Davis, & Gärling, 2003; Korpela, Ylén, Tyrväinen, & Silvennoinen, 2008; Krenichyn, 2006), schools (Matsuoka, 2010) and neighborhoods (Kuo & Sullivan, 2001; Rappe & Kivela, 2005; Taylor, Kuo, & Sullivan, 2001; Tennessen & Cimprich, 1995; Wells, 2000).
In one fascinating study (Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008), participants’ attention was assessed in a University of Michigan laboratory. Following the assessment, each participant was asked to walk for fifty minutes in either downtown Ann Arbor or in the university’s arboretum. When they returned from their walk, their attention was assessed again. The following week these individuals came back to the lab and repeated the same activities, except that those who had originally walked downtown walked in the arboretum and vice versa. The results were compelling. After the walk in the arboretum, participants’ attentional performance improved by 20%. But no gains in performance were found after the walk downtown. A 20% improvement in one’s capacity to pay attention is no trivial matter—perhaps on the order of a clinical dose of attention-deficit drugs such as Ritalin, Adderall, or Dexedrine. In other words, a 20% increase in attentional performance is likely to have significant implications for a person’s functioning and her or his capacity to act in a reasonable fashion.
It is clear that being in or looking onto a green space can improve people’s ability to focus their attention. But is the effect of green space on attention useful to a variety of people under a variety of circumstances? The evidence shows that a wide range of people benefit from exposure to green spaces. Studies have demonstrated links between green spaces and higher performance on attentional tasks in public housing residents, AIDS caregivers, cancer patients, college students, prairie restoration volunteers, and employees of large organizations.
Perhaps most strikingly, children diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have been found to benefit from exposure to urban parks and other green spaces near their homes. In a series of studies, such access has been consistently linked with a reduction in ADHD symptoms (Kuo & Taylor, 2004; Taylor & Kuo, 2009, 2011; Taylor et al., 2001). In findings similar to those in the University of Michigan study described above, Taylor and Kuo report that children with ADHD concentrated significantly better after a walk in a park than after a walk downtown or in a neighborhood (2009).
Attention and Reasonableness
Let’s take a closer look at the impact of our capacity to pay attention on the various components of RPM—model building, being effective, and meaningful action—and each of their subcomponents. As we have seen above, our capacity to pay attention is depleted through intense use or by carrying out activities in unsupportive places (e.g., settings that are incompatible with our activities, dangerous places). How might varying levels of attentional functioning impact each of the components of RPM?
Model building often depends on one’s capacity to pay attention. Trying to understand something—even something relatively simple—when your attentional capacity is low can be hard work, as is evidenced in many a classroom setting. Many of us put off until later an activity that requires us to understand or learn something new when our attentional capacity is low. Similarly, in many contexts it would take substantial motivation to explore a problem, idea, or opportunity when your attention is depleted. Fortunately, we are predisposed to build mental models and explore even when our attentional capacity is somewhat depleted.
Being effective also depends on one’s ability to pay attention. Although our attentional capacity is less important for activities that have become automatic (e.g., riding a bike, getting dressed, preparing breakfast), it is critical for activities that include even moderately complex decisions, trade-offs, planning, predictions, evaluations, or the development of high levels of skill. Take, for instance, learning to play a musical instrument. Becoming proficient requires a great deal of practice, some of which may not take that much effort (doing scales can certainly become automatic), but mastery will not be reached without paying attention. Being clearheaded requires a moderately high level of attentional capacity. And higher levels of attentional functioning enhance competence of most every sort.
Taking meaningful action is certainly enhanced by higher levels of attentional functioning. Participation often requires a complex array of cognitive demands (e.g., making assessments of various sorts, engaging appropriately for the social context) that benefit from a restored capacity to pay attention. Treating others with respect is often easier when you are not feeling some of the side effects of mental fatigue (e.g., impulsiveness, irritability).
In sum, our capacity to pay attention, this powerful yet fragile resource, is fundamental to engaging in reasonable behavior. Indeed, it is fundamental to almost everything we seek to accomplish.
Toward a Clear Head
If, like Stan at the beginning of this chapter, you find yourself experiencing the symptoms of mental fatigue, you might consider running a small experiment or two. Small experiments involve modest explorations or pilot tests of new ways of doing things (Irvine & Kaplan, 2001). You might create a small experiment that explores ways to improve your effectiveness and clearheadedness—which will, in turn, improve your capacity to engage the world in reasonable ways. Here are several ideas to consider, with some exploring ways to reduce the drain on your attentional resources while others suggest ways to help you restore them.
Eliminate distractions. Many of us live with constant distractions that are a significant source of mental fatigue. Some distractions we have little control over (e.g., if you work in an open office setting and can hear the conversations of those around you). But many distractions are of our own making. We have our e-mail set such that an alarm sounds when new messages arrive. Our cell phones vibrate multiple times per day with the latest notifications about news, weather, and sports scores. We receive reports from social media that someone has had a thought, or we get a notice that a blogger has posted something new. These distractions come with invisible costs; they can take a significant toll not only on our capacity to work effectively but also in filling our heads with ideas and issues that are not connected to our purposes. One small experiment that you can run is to see how far you can go toward eliminating the distractions you face on a daily basis. Can you turn off your social media notices during your productive hours? Can you silence your e-mail while you are engaged in your most important tasks? Can you disable instant messaging? Trying to do some or all of these, and similar things will be more useful if, in the spirit of a small experiment, you also take notice of any changes in how you feel at the end of an hour, a day, or a week. Eliminating distractions will help you keep, or regain, a clear head.
Editors’ Comment: Basu (Chapter 6) expands the notion of small experiments on oneself to the other domains of RPM.
Stop the multitasking madness. Our culture places high standing on individuals who seem able to do multiple things at once. As any parent can attest, multitasking is sometimes necessary. But true multitasking can only be accomplished when you are engaged in highly automated activities such as walking and talking. It may feel like we are multitasking when we are working on one cognitively demanding task (e.g., writing a proposal) while monitoring e-mail and responding to instant messages. But what is happening is that we are working on one task at a time while rapidly switching between tasks.
Flicking our attention back and forth between topics results in two significant costs that are almost always invisible. The first cost is that we function with significantly less skill and accuracy than if we had focused on one task at a time (Rubinstein, Meyer, & Evans, 2001). Attending to or processing more than one task at a time overloads our information-processing capacities (Koch, Lawo, Fels, & Vorlander, 2011). Trying to do multiple things at once—that is, multitasking—is predictive of lower performance on tests of attention (Pratt, Willoughby, & Swick, 2011), more errors in a variety of tasks (Adler & Benbunan-Fich, 2011), and, perhaps not surprisingly, lower grades in college courses (Junco, 2012).
The second cost is that rapidly switching from one topic to another places considerable demands on directed attention and likely results in higher levels of mental fatigue per unit of work accomplished. The cumulative costs of multitasking, then, include making more errors and suffering the side effects of mental fatigue.
Can you devise a small experiment or two to reduce your own attempts at multitasking? You might try scheduling time to work on your most important tasks—perhaps an hour or ninety minutes per day. During that time, turn off your e-mail and instant messages. Turn off your web browser too. Create conditions that reduce the temptation to do more than one thing at a time. You will likely have to turn off your phone and other mobile computing devices as well. Can you think of ways that you might monitor your progress or evaluate your success in doing only one important thing at a time? For that matter, you might want to experiment with how long a time you can effectively focus your attention on important tasks.
Set some time aside. The ubiquity of smart phones and other mobile computing devices also creates challenges that work against having a clear head. One of these challenges is that we are tempted, during all our waking hours, to jump into the communication stream, turning our attention to the latest e-mail, blog post, or text message. You may have felt this temptation at the end of a meeting or class, while you are waiting for the bus, or even while you are waiting for an elevator. Disengaging from the flow of communication, even for a few minutes, will allow you to be in the moment, to notice the world around you, to smell the flowers and will likely rest your capacity to pay attention and thus restore, at least a bit, your ability to focus.
Another challenge associated with the ubiquity of mobile computing devices is that they create an expectation that we are always available to coworkers or clients. Thus, even when we are engaged with family or involved in other leisure activities, we may experience a gnawing feeling that we should check e-mail to see if anyone needs us at this moment. The expectation that we are always available through our mobile devices can have considerable costs, even when no one wants to engage us. Just the thought that someone might want to be in touch via e-mail or text can keep you vigilant for such communications. This expectation can easily become a significant distraction that reduces the restorative impact of a leisure activity.
In response to the notion that it is now normal for individuals to be available at all times, Perlow (2012) makes a convincing argument that we can agree with our colleagues and clients to disconnect from the communication stream at specific times and in doing so increase our productivity. Is this a small experiment you can try with your colleagues?
Seek out contact with nature. One of the most consistent findings from the research inspired by ART is that having regular contact with natural settings—including urban settings with some green elements—has important consequences for your attentional functioning. That’s because being in or looking at nature engages our involuntary attention and thus allows our directed attention to rest and restore.
You might design a small experiment or two in an effort to experience for yourself the benefits of regular exposure to green space. You might arrange your office or workspace so that it is easy to look out to a green setting or at flowers in a vase or plants on the windowsill. Or you could walk or ride your bike to school or work on tree-lined streets. You could take a half-hour walk in a park, forest preserve, or other green space three or four times per week. The positive consequences of taking any one of these steps is likely to be felt in multiple areas of your life.
A more advanced small experiment, one that is likely to have considerable payoffs, is to learn to anticipate and recognize impending (or existing) mental fatigue. Strangely, while it is easy to acknowledge irritability in someone else, it is rare that we see it coming in our own case, even though we have experienced our share of mental fatigue. We make errors and then attribute these mistakes to many factors but rarely to mental fatigue. More than likely, we prefer to persist, to power through until the job is complete, to finish the task rather than stop and address our declining attentional capacity. Thus, another small experiment to consider is to recognize impending mental fatigue in ourselves and to take a break in favor of an activity that restores our attentional functioning. Here again, to get the full benefit of the small experiment, try to track or observe or assess how your experiment fared.
Beyond yourself. In addition to creating the conditions under which you are able to clear your mind, you might also conduct some small experiments that create more restorative settings in your community. Here are some actions to consider:
- Work with local leaders to develop and set urban tree canopy goals at the neighborhood scale.
- Seek opportunities to convert underutilized properties and common spaces into green assets such as parks, community gardens, or attractive rainwater management features.
Much of our discussion of mental fatigue has focused on the costs to the individual of having depleted attentional capacities. But the consequences of mental fatigue—being prone to mistakes, distracted, unfocused, forgetful, impulsive, and irritable—extend far beyond the individual. What are the consequences for a young child of having a parent who suffers from consistently high levels of mental fatigue? It is easy to imagine that the child will experience a range of negative impacts and that these impacts will spill over to the child’s behavior and performance in school and to her or his relationships with peers and teachers. What are the consequences for you and your colleagues of having a coworker who is consistently mentally fatigued? It is easy to imagine that you will be confronted with challenges that range from an impulsive comment that is hurtful to others to missed deadlines and a range of minor and sometimes significant mistakes that could be incredibly costly. What are the consequences of having a neighbor who is consistently mentally fatigued? It is easy to imagine that there will be more road rage and fewer contributions to the civic realm than if your neighbor was less fatigued. It is a fair guess that the consequences of mental fatigue have profound implications not only for individuals but also for families, schools, communities, and the workplace. Finding ways to help people restore their attentional functioning will benefit them and the people with whom they come into contact on a daily basis.
Stan is mentally fatigued. Although he has observed that he’s not at the top of his game, his plan of action—to try harder—will likely make matters worse. The consequences for him, his family, his coworkers, and his community are not bright. Stan is considerably less likely to act in a reasonable fashion when he is mentally fatigued. Instead of trying harder, Stan would be wise to go for a walk in a green setting several times per week or rearrange his office so that he views a bit of nature from his window, or he might even try both. He’ll likely feel more on top of his game than by trying to work harder or by multitasking more often.
Most of us have a lot in common with Stan. We live in attentionally demanding times. We are bombarded with information throughout the day, and each morning we are greeted with a torrent of new information—much of which is interesting but not useful to our purposes. Most of the things that are related to our purposes require us to pay attention. This is certainly true with respect to our employment but increasingly so with respect to our leisure activities, such as engaging with social media or digital games. Managing this flood of information leads to mental fatigue. The costs of being mentally fatigued have profound implications for our effectiveness and for being reasonable. Mentally fatigued individuals (as most of us can attest) have difficulty concentrating. They also are more likely to be withdrawn, irritable, distractible, impulsive, and accident-prone—not a state that is likely to bring out the best in people.
ART poses that a walk in an urban park or a view to a green area outside a window will reduce the symptoms of mental fatigue and put a person in a state in which he or she are more likely to act in a reasonable fashion. RPM seeks to understand the conditions in which people are likely to be civil, patient, and respectful; to develop clarity; and to engage in meaningful activities. Given the importance of our capacity to pay attention to each of these factors, it is not surprising that evidence is now pouring in demonstrating that a dose of nature can have important consequences not only for our ability to focus our minds but also for our capacity to engage the world in a fashion that promotes reasonableness and thus enhances our ability to make a difference in the world.
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This chapter, like most of my life’s work, grows from the pathbreaking insights of Stephen and Rachel Kaplan. I appreciate them beyond measure. I am also grateful for the suggestions made to improve this chapter by Rachel Kaplan, Avik Basu, Rebecca Ginsburg, and members of Rachel and Avik’s NRE 677 spring of 2013 class. You all aided me in my quest to understand, be effective, and take meaningful action. Thank you.