Greta and I did our undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago, or as a commonly-sold T-shirt on campus put it, “where fun goes to die.” To say that Chicago didn’t emphasize academics over a social life is to deny that people literally lived in the library (a full-scale campsite was found behind one of the stairwells in the stacks; students had been living there for months). It’s not that the administration didn’t try to encourage its students to socialize. The library did close at 10 p.m. on Friday nights. There was not one but two film societies, so often students had to choose between, say, the Hitchcock fest at one theater and the Kurosawa marathon at the other.
Still, studying was the primary focus of campus life. There may have been five fraternities, but there were 30 coffee shops on campus. We didn’t have “parties,” we had “study breaks.” But one thing we never managed to do while we were there was figure out what the most effective study break might be. When you’re studying during nearly every free moment, what’s the best way to clear up your mind and refocus yourself for the next round of studying?
One old idea that has re-emerged recently is called “attention restoration theory”, or ART. William James actually discussed a similar concept in his 1892 psychology textbook. The idea that taking a walk in the woods can help you refocus your thoughts is at least as old as Immanuel Kant, and probably older. But how exactly does interacting with nature help focus attention? ART says that the natural world engages your attention in a bottom-up fashion, by features of the environment (e.g. a sunset, a beautiful tree). The artificial world demands active attention, to avoid getting hit by cars or to follow street signs. Since intellectual activities like studying or writing also demand the same kind of attention, taking a break in the artificial world doesn’t really function like a rest.
Marc Berman, John Jonides, and Stephen Kaplan wanted to see if they could measure the effect of ART. They paid 38 student volunteers to do a backwards digit-span task. The volunteers were given sequences of 3 to 9 numeric digits and had to repeat them in reverse, so if the experimenter said “6-1-9” then the student would say “9-1-6”. After 14 tests (two of each length), the students took an hour-long walk either through an arboretum, or through downtown Ann Arbor. Then the digit-span test was repeated. Did a walk through nature improve the digit-span score? Here are the results:
While everyone’s scores improved a little bit after taking a walk, only the improvement in the nature-walkers’ scores rose to significance, and the change in the nature-walkers’ scores was significantly more than the change in the city-walkers scores. In the end, each student did both a nature walk and a city walk, and everyone’s average was better after the nature walk than the urban walk.
In a second experiment, students did both a backwards digit-span and a second, visual attention task. Instead of going for a walk between tests, they viewed pictures of natural scenes or urban scenes. Once again, scores improved significantly more on the digit-span task after viewing natural scenes compared to urban scenes. On the visual attention task, the students were only better at the task in certain cases. For very simple tasks with few distractors, there was no difference between the students seeing natural or urban scenes. But for more complex tasks requiring more focused attention, again the students who had seen the natural scenes did better.
So what does this mean for the University of Chicago’s study breaks? Chicago is a very urban environment, and while the campus is attractive, there aren’t many places you can go without seeing tall buildings. In most cases, your view out the window is another building, not a tree or a park. Furthermore, the weather is only appealing enough to go outside for about 3 months out of the academic year; the rest of the time it’s an Arctic wasteland.
Gary Felsten wanted to know what the best location for student study breaks might be, and so he asked them. He took pictures of several lounge areas on an urban and a rural campus. Some of the lounges had windows overlooking urban scenes or other buildings, while some looked out on open, parklike areas. Some had no windows at all. For some of the windowless lounges, he photoshopped murals of natural scenes onto their empty walls, like this:
Then he had over 200 students rate the lounges for various qualities thought by the ART to be “restorative”: A sense of “being away,” “fascination,” and comfort and ease. The students actually rated the lounges with murals as being more restorative than those with window views of nature, although all the nature views, whether real or artificial, were seen as more restorative than views of urban scenes. It might be that something as simple as a mural could contribute to an effective study break (though it’s unclear whether the restorative properties of a lounge would be as effective if it were packed with noisy students).
From Immanuel Kant to Henry David Thoreau to William James, there’s a long tradition of scholars taking long walks in nature to refocus their thoughts. Now there’s research suggesting exactly how this process might work. Of course, another way to improve your focus on studying is to date someone who spends a lot of time in the library. Worked for me!
Berman, M., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature Psychological Science, 19 (12), 1207-1212 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02225.x
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