Natural Views Boost Attention, Focus and Performance

green roofs microbreaks increase attention and performance

Photo by David Gleason

Do you feel a little more relaxed when you take a deep breath and gaze out into nature? Perhaps you sense that glancing into a natural setting could help you focus on finding a solution to a problem you want to solve. Or even provide you with a respite after a challenging situation.

Well, looking at nature does these and more according to recent research. A 2015 study published in the scientific journal Environmental Psychology has found that taking a microbreak and looking at a natural scene will increase our mental focus. Looking at nature will also increase our accuracy and performance in doing tasks, according to the research.

The research comes from the University of Melbourne. The researchers tested 150 university students. They randomly separated the students into two groups. Both groups did a tedious task that required attention and focus. This consisted of pressing computer keys as a series of numbers flashed on a computer screen periodically.

Then the students were instructed to stop and take what is called a microbreak before continuing their tasking.

What’s a microbreak?

A microbreak is just what it sounds. It’s a small break. The length of a microbreak can last a minute or two, but can also last as little as 30 seconds.

In this study, the length of the microbreaks was 40 seconds. During this period, both groups of students took the 40 seconds in the middle of their tasking.

Microbreaks have been shown to increase comfort and decrease fatigue for computer workers. A 2007 study from Canada’s Dalhousie University had workers take microbreaks every 40 or 20 minutes. They found that microbreaks didn’t necessarily increase productivity, but they reduced discomfort and muscle strain among the workers.

Another older study found that 27 second microbreaks decreased fatigue among computer keyboard operators.

Microbreaks with a view

In the 2015 study we’re discussing, one group viewed a city scene with a large building in the middle during their microbreak. The building had a bare concrete roof. It was a typical city scene.

Microbreak contrasting views. Courtesy of University of Melbourne

Microbreak contrasting views. Courtesy of University of Melbourne

The other group looked at the same city scene, except the roof on the building was a flowering meadow green roof.

What’s a green roof?

Green roofs are sprouting up in practically every major city today. Some call these living roofs. A green roof is a roof that is covered with soil and seeded with plants. Some green roofs are planted with vegetable gardens. Others are simply planted with grass or meadow wild plants.

Green roofs have a number of advantages in terms of our climate and our environmental health. A green roof will slow down global warming. This is because the green plants will absorb the sunlight. Typical roofs reflect sunlight to one degree or another. This also reflects the heat of the sun, warming our planet.

Green roofs will also provide a building with insulation. They will also keep a building cooler. These reduce carbon emissions due to the decreased use of electricity and fuel.

Green roofs can also feed us. A number of green roof projects in major cities are now growing vegetables. These end up in markets where people can buy and eat them. These farming ventures are also referred to as rooftop farms. Check out some cool things growing on rooftop farms.

The green roof microbreak boosts concentration and performance

Back to our study at hand. After taking the microbreak and looking at one scene or another, the researchers had the students continue their tasks.

The tasking system measured their performance before and after they looked at the city scene during the microbreak.

Those who looked at the green roof during their microbreak made significantly fewer errors in their tasks. They also showed better concentration after the microbreak than before the break.

Furthermore, the concentration increase of those looking at the green roof was superior to those who looked at the concrete roof.

The researchers concluded that glancing at the green roof provided the students with a restorative effect. The study’s lead researcher, a science professor at the University of Melbourne, commented on the study:

“We know that green roofs are great for the environment, but now we can say that they boost attention too. Imagine the impact that has for thousands of employees working in nearby offices. This study showed us that looking at an image of nature for less than a minute was all it took to help people perform better on our task.”

Dr. Lee also commented on the importance of taking microbreaks while we are working – especially when nature can be observed:

“It’s really important to have micro-breaks. It’s something that a lot of us do naturally when we’re stressed or mentally fatigued. There’s a reason you look out the window and seek nature, it can help you concentrate on your work and to maintain performance across the workday.”

 

Practical applications for increasing focus and performance

Putting this into practice is quite easy, but requires some planning. Putting ourselves in a position so that we can take frequent microbreaks to glance at nature means we have to work in a setting with a natural scene nearby.

Getting outside as much as possible is obvious, but this will require the proper attire depending upon the season. Taking meetings or important discussions outside is also a great idea. Perhaps taking a walk through the park or a beach is better than a stuffy meeting in a restaurant.

Eating outside when possible is also a good idea. This might mean packing a bag lunch or ordering out. If it’s cold or snowing outside, just finding someplace to sit that allows some views of evergreen trees could work.

Even if a room doesn’t have good windows to view nature, putting up pictures of nature can also help. Or even having a book of nature pictures available.

All of these strategies won’t work, however, unless the natural scenes are looked at. This is something that most of us forget about. We might be walking in a park or have a natural setting outside our window: But we forget to gaze at it.

I can’t tell you how many people I see walking or otherwise being in a natural setting who are staring down at the concrete sidewalk or staring at their smartphone or tablet. It seems obvious, but staring at the concrete or our smartphone simply does not have the same effect. These would be compared to the students in the study looking at the bare concrete roof or the computer screen.

Another application for these findings relates to children who might have attention issues. Giving the kids an opportunity to take microbreaks or longer breaks to go out into nature or even to stare out into nature or is an obvious strategy that is bound to increase concentration and focus – not to mention learning.

 

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REFERENCES:

Lee KE, Williams KJ, Sargent LD, Williams NS, Johnson KA. 40-second green roof views sustain attention: The role of micro-breaks in attention restoration. J Environ Psych, 2015. 42:182. DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2015.04.003
Glancing at a grassy green roof significantly boosts concentration. The Melbourne Newsroom. May 25, 2015. Accessed Jan. 25, 2016.

Mclean L, Tingley M, Scott RN, Rickards J. Computer terminal work and the benefit of microbreaks. Appl Ergon. 2001 Jun;32(3):225-37.

Henning RA, Sauter SL, Salvendy G, Krieg EF Jr. Microbreak length, performance, and stress in a data entry task. Ergonomics. 1989 Jul;32(7):855-64.

Case Adams is a California Naturopath with a PhD in Natural Health Sciences, and Board Certified Alternative Medicine Practitioner. He has authored 26 books on natural healing strategies. “My journey into writing about alternative medicine began about 9:30 one evening after I finished with a patient at the clinic I practiced at over a decade ago. I had just spent the last two hours explaining how diet, sleep and other lifestyle choices create health problems and how changes in these, along with certain herbal medicines and other natural strategies can radically yet safely turn ones health around. As I drove home that night, I realized I needed to get this knowledge out to more people. So I began writing about health with a mission to reach those who desperately need this information. The strategies in my books and articles are backed by scientific evidence along with wisdom handed down through traditional medicines for thousands of years.”