Our world is busier and noisier than our ancestors could ever have imagined. We’re confronted with supercharged digital imagery from the moment we wake up until the moment we go to sleep. Though we may not be conscious of it, the effort of keeping these competing demands in check is mentally fatiguing and affects our stress levels as well as our ability to concentrate.
But research suggests that the natural environment can help relieve this mental fatigue, making us more able to focus.
Attention Restoration Theory (ART) and Evolutionary psychologists hold that where the constructed environment exhausts brain capacity, the visual and chemical properties of plants seem to restore it. Humans have not evolved to cope with the sensory overload of man-made products, but in conjunction with nature. This has made us intrinsically compatible with natural patterns and signs of nature.
Under Restore you’ll also find plants that are affected by circadian rhythms, particularly those that produce more oxygen at night. The plants make good bedroom buddies as they promote better sleep regularity, and have a calming effect on us.
Although all plants are restorative, some are more so than others, due to qualities such as colour, pattern distribution and texture. For example, studies have shown that fractal patterns have a marked influence on participants’ ability to focus on a task. You’ll find these plants here.
Attention Restoration Theory
On some level we all know that being amongst nature helps calm us, but the connection between this and improved attention has been closely studied by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan. The couple have undertaken decades of research on the matter, leading to the publication of three peer-reviewed books and two journal articles.
Psychological restoration translates as a reduction in mental fatigue, reduced stress and an increased ability to focus on tasks.
Kaplan and Kaplan break down the restoration process into four stages: Fascination, Being Away, Extension and Compatibility.
Fascination describes the involuntary awe we feel when in an environment rich with natural diversity. In contrast to the attractions of the artificial environment which sap our energy, nature fascinates without exploiting cognition (it gives without taking).
Being Away is the slightly loft term Kaplan and Kaplan use to reference the feeling of being taken out of the stresses of our day. This aspect of ART culturally embedded: it refers dually to the perception of plant life being ‘other’ than the man-made, and the feeling of being away (like a brain vacation).
Extension is about the connections we make (subconsciously) between each element in the space we’re in. It is the imagined journeys we make and the potential to mine the visual information around us (eg. unseen patterns on the underside of a plant’s leaves).
Compatibility: one of our favourite bits about ART is that it recognises how important our personal preferences are when it comes to plants and wellbeing. Kaplan and Kaplan say that our attention is most restored when we feel connected with the natural elements of our environment - that’s why it’s so important to build a relationship with your plants!
Sleep and Circadian Rhythms
ART is about recuperation and alertness during the day. The other side of Restore is about helping out bodies maintain their natural rhythms.
Plants have internal cellular clocks, just like we do. We know this because when plants are deprived of light and other queues pertaining to the natural environment, they continue to behave according to the rhythms of the day.
Some plants respond to the time of day more emphatically than others. Calatheas are a particularly good example: at night, the leaves of Calatheas close shut and the plant releases higher levels of oxygen (making it a Breathe/Restore double whammy).
Research in this area is in its infancy, but at least one study has found empirical support for the theory: A paper published in the Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that indoor plants improved the quality of sleep and cognition in Alzheimer’s patients, whilst reducing agitation.
This may be related to the shared circadian nature of plants and humans, the calming effect that plants have, or another unknown property. But, if you want a good night’s sleep, testing the theory yourself couldn’t hurt!