In the fourth year of my Psychology degree in university I had to complete research and write an Honors Thesis. I chose to focus on the relationship between natural environments/natural elements and mental ability, specifically concentration and creativity. The actual research phase of my thesis ended up being a bit of a joke as the conditions I was trying to produce ended up being fairly impossible (ahem…no budget) and I had to settle for some strung together DYI arrangements that did not work out as well as I had hoped.
I won’t get into the details of what I did because it is somewhat tedious to explain, but what my results showed wasn’t so much that the physical environment itself influenced how creative or concentrated the subjects were, but rather that there was a positive correlation between how favorably subjects rated the physical environment they were in and how well they scored on the concentration and creativity tasks. And sure, once the data was ran through SSRS the correlation was not “significant”, but there was definitely a positive relationship and I suppose for an undergrad thesis that was good enough. It was really more about the process of doing research anyway.
It was a very interesting experience to go through and I still sometimes think back to it and come up with ideas on how I could have improved my process and research methodology. However, more often what I think about is the main theory I used to support my research. A theory best outlined in this paper written by Stephen Kaplan for The Journal of Environmental Psychology, published in 1995.
The basis of it is that there are four basic tenants that must be present for any physical environment to be restorative. Kaplan defines restorative as meaning a mental state which is active only in involuntary attention, versus direct attention. When we do work, concentrate on a sports game, or even drive a car in the city, we are using direct attention. It is not necessarily straining or stressful, but it is also not relaxing per se. Involuntary attention is best described as the state of mind one would have perched on top of a mountain looking out into the distance, or canoeing on a lake, or hiking through a forest…you get the idea. You are not spacing out but there is no real effort going into concentration. It is not necessary to be out in nature to experience this state of mind, but what Kaplan and others have argued is that nature is a naturally-occurring environment in which all four characteristics of a restorative environment exist…erm…naturally. There are other studies, by the way, that have shown much smaller, but still significant positive influences of natural elements in work and home environments. Things like live plants, exposed brick/stone, wood beams, and running water in fountains have all been linked to more productive and creativity-fostering work environments, for example.
So, what are the four tenants?
- Fascination – objects, patterns, movements that naturally capture attention in a “soft” way. Basically without requiring a dramatic response or action.
- Being away – Kaplan emphasizes that this is more a conceptual and not necessarily a physical attribute. One does not need to be in the middle of Algonquin Park to experience this aspect. Think of being in a small down town park for example. You may still hear city noises, but at the same time feel removed from them.
- Extent – Again, this is naturally found out in nature because one has a sense of it extending way beyond what the eye can see. However, this can also be achieved in other ways. The main idea is that one has the sense of a separate and full environment.
- Compatibility – Kaplan writes, “the setting must fit what one is trying to do and what one would like to do”. One person might love fishing and find sitting in a boat on a lake all day to be a very restorative experience, for example. If one does not like to fish, and does not enjoy the process, the same activity will not produce the same effects. You get the idea.
Still with me?
The reason I wanted to write about this stuff is because it has been on my mind an awful lot this summer. I thought about it while sitting in the woods at the Ontario Vipassana Centre, while spending time at the Toronto Islands, while sitting on the shore of Lake Ontario in Ashbridge’s Bay and Humber Bay Parks, and while enjoying the company of friends in city parks all summer. And the reason it has come into my head again, and again, and again is because it is oh so darn important! At least it is to me. And also because I have been so lucky to enjoy these restorative environment experiences all summer. It is interesting that not once have my friends and I ventured out to one of these locations this summer that one of us does not exclaim “I can’t believe this is RIGHT here! We are still in Toronto, but it so doesn’t feel like it!” Amen to that!
And now with winter sort of around the corner I am already starting to worry about where I will be finding these moments during the cold winter months. Although, I am probably much more excited about apple farms, pumpkin patches, and foilage oooooh and aaaahing outings for now!
In a real “go out with a bang” kind of outing this weekend, my friend and I are biking 60k as part of the Tour de Greenbelt AND I AM SO EXCITED!!!! Just read this description! Just read it!
What began as a fresh air festival on wheels is now a fresh air festival on wheels or foot that allows you, along with your friends and family, to enjoy an at-your-own-pace marshaled bike ride, run, or guided hike through Rouge Park, a gem of Ontario’s Greenbelt.
Conveniently located close to downtown Toronto this year’s tour offers visually stunning routes, numerous fun and interesting stops along the way, which could include spotting ducks and frogs at a newly created wetland, cycling through Bob Hunter Memorial Park (which celebrates a Canadian environmental hero), stops for some freshly baked pie, and maybe even a detour to pick up some delicious local corn to take home. As always, there will be varying routes and lengths, so there’s something for everyone’s skill level.
I am so looking forward to Saturday and I will make sure to take lots of pics and write all about it next week.