Exposure to the natural environment can make us better at menial tasks

ResearchBlogging.orgSome of the things psychologists ask their research subjects to do are really rather annoying. I'm not talking about Milgram-esque studies where people confront their inner demons, I'm talking about much more pedestrian stuff. This movie, for example, gives you a small taste of the Sustained Attention to Response Test (SART). A series of numbers will flash by, about 1 per second. While you watch, tap your finger on your desk for each number except the number 4. Give it a whirl:

In some ways, it's a completely mindless task, but you have to keep paying attention or you'll end up tapping when you're not supposed to. After about five minutes of this test, most research participants are about ready to go crazy. In many ways, it's like your typical entry-level cubicle farm or assembly-line job. It's what you go to college to avoid, and then your intro psych class makes it a requirement (though to be fair, most classes allow you to choose which experiments you'll participate in).

On the other hand, someone's got to do those dull, repetitive jobs that still require continuous attention. Is there anything that can make a job like that a little easier? How about a pretty picture, like this (from my Pasayten hike):

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That might seem silly, but there's actually some evidence that exposure to natural scenes can restore the ability to pay attention that's so easily sapped by menial tasks. College students with nicer views from their dorm rooms have scored better on tests of attention compared to students with dismal views. But maybe the students who choose (or who can afford) nicer rooms just happen to be better at those types of tests.

Rita Berto had students do the SART task I showed you above, typing the space bar for every number except for 3. But they had to do it for five minutes instead of just 45 seconds, like in my clip. Then for five minutes half the students were shown "restorative" photos: pictures of scenes that other students had rated as relaxing, interesting, free, and appealing, like the picture I snapped on my hike last summer. The other half were shown photos that were rated low on the same scale: ugly streetscapes, industrial scenes, and so on. Then all the students did another five-minute round of SART. How did they do?

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The students who saw restorative photos performed significantly better than they had before, while there was no significant improvement for the students who saw non-restorative photos.

But maybe the real reason students did better with "restorative" photos was not because they were scenes from nature, but because these photos were relatively effortless to view -- they are innately fascinating to humans, and so don't require as much effort as viewing a depressing urban scene. So Berto repeated the study, replacing the restorative photos with pictures of geometrical patterns that had been chosen by psychologists as similarly "effortless." This time there was no improvement between sessions.

In a third experiment, Berto allowed students to control how long they viewed each photo (using the original restorative and non-restorative pictures). Once again, the students performed better after seeing restorative pictures.

Berto says these results suggest that an office environment with more windows could result in higher productivity than a completely enclosed space. They also make a good case for natural spaces like parks in congested urban centers (and for employers allowing their workers to use those spaces during breaks).

R BERTO (2005). Exposure to restorative environments helps restore attentional capacity Journal of Environmental Psychology, 25 (3), 249-259 DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2005.07.001

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The windows would only help if they overlooked a natural scene though. I wonder if this has any relationship to studies of urban vs rural environment and ability to concentrate.

I guess a nice Windows desktop would do the trick too, at least in the management opinion...

By Wojciech Setlak (not verified) on 29 Jan 2009 #permalink

What constitutes the reaction time data? i.e. Hits? False Alarms? Or simply key press responses regardless of whether it was Hits or False Alarms?

From what i know of the SART literature, faster RTs are indicative of waning attention. This is due to the 'automatic' nature of the the Ps responses - You're not paying attention to your key presses hence it gets faster and faster. The results that Berto show seem a little counter to the SART literature...
Looks like i'll have to read this paper after all.

Thanks for sharing.

By Marcus C. (not verified) on 29 Jan 2009 #permalink

Marcus:

They did better on reaction time, accuracy with correct responses, and overall score (D-prime). I just showed reaction time because that was the cleanest data.

Do you know if there is a simple, inexpensive computer program available that delivers the SART for either the Mac or PC?