Sustained attention is the ability to self-sustain conscious processing of repetitive and non-arousing stimuli that would usually lead to habituation and distraction to other stimuli. It is a fundamental cognitive function that is involved in the processing of many cognitive abilities, but it often declines over the course of a task. The Attention Restoration Theory proposes that exposure to restorative environments provides the ability to replenish attentional capacity. For an environment to be restorative, it must provide a sense of (1) “being away” conceptually, have (2) “extent” by providing coherence and scope to evoke a whole new world, be (3) “compatible” with the person’s current needs, and it must be (4) “fascinating” to the observer, capturing their attention. Although restorative environments do not have to be natural, natural environments are more likely to contain these restorative qualities as they gently capture involuntary attention to enable the renewal of cognitive resources, restoring sustained attention. Empirical research to date has largely focused on comparing green vegetation with urban landscapes. Few studies have examined the impact of aquatic environments on attention. Furthermore, as natural environments are typically perceived as being more restorative than urban environments, investigating the factors that may influence an individual’s perceived restorativeness would help to understand why certain environments are restorative for some people but not others. Recent studies have suggested that greater connectedness to nature is associated with greater perceived restoration from natural environments, however, there is little to no acknowledgment about whether individuals with low connectedness to nature find non-natural settings (e.g., urban environments) restorative. This study examined the effects of exposure to a meadow, ocean, or urban environment on sustained attention performance and perceived restoration, and the relation between connectedness to nature and perceived restoration.
Research Questions / Hypotheses
Three hypotheses were proposed: (1) Sustained attention performance would decline least for the meadow group, less for the ocean group, and most for the urban group, as measured by errors of commission and omission, mean response times, and standard deviation of response time on the Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART). (2) Perceived restorativeness would be highest for the ocean group, lower for the meadow group, and lowest for the urban group, as measured by scores on the Perceived Restorativeness Scale (PRS; Hartig, Korpela et al., 1997). (3) Connectedness to nature, as measured by scores on the Connectedness to Nature Scale (CNS; Mayer & Frantz, 2004), would moderate the relation between viewing a particular environmental image and perceived restorativeness, as measured by scores on the PRS, such that higher CNS scores would predict greater PRS scores for the meadow and ocean groups and lower CNS scores would predict greater PRS scores for the urban group.
Two hundred and fifteen participants were recruited from the University of Melbourne undergraduate psychology Research Experience Program (REP; n = 182) and from the broader population (n = 33). Fifteen participants were excluded because they were diagnosed with a condition that impacted their thinking skills, one was excluded because they had taken medication that may have affected their cognitive performance, and 13 were excluded for making 30 or more omission errors on the SART, suggesting they were not attempting the task appropriately. Six participants were randomly excluded from the meadow group to achieve a balanced number of participants among the three groups, using a random number generator in Excel. The 180 participants in the final sample were randomly assigned to one of the meadow group (n = 60), ocean group (n = 60), or urban group (control; n = 60).
Participants first completed a demographic questionnaire, the Karolinska Sleepiness Scale, which is a self-report measure of an individual’s level of sleepiness, and the Attention-Related Cognitive Errors Scale, which is a self-report measure of perceived lapses in conscious attention. Participants were tested on the random Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART), then were shown a digital image of either a meadow with trees, an ocean, or an urban environment for 40 seconds. They then completed the SART again. Participants’ perceived restoration after viewing the image and their connectedness to nature were also measured, using the PRS and CNS respectively.
Results show that all groups declined in their sustained attention performance after viewing the images, however, there were no between group differences on the count of commission and omission errors, mean response time, or the standard deviation of response time. The nature images were perceived as equally restorative, and more restorative than the urban image. Connectedness to nature moderated the relation between viewing an environment and perceived restoration, whereby high CNS scores predicted high PRS scores for the meadow and ocean groups, however, low CNS scores did not predict high PRS scores for the urban group.
The results do not support the first hypothesis as there were no significant differences between the three groups’ sustained attention performance after viewing the images. Nature images were perceived as being more restorative than the urban image, however, perceived restorativeness did not differ between the meadow and ocean images, which partially supports the second hypothesis. As high CNS scores predicted high PRS scores for the meadow and ocean groups, but low CNS scores did not predict high PRS scores for the urban group, this finding partially supports the third hypothesis. Results suggest that natural environments do not always restore attention, natural environments are perceived as being more restorative than urban environments, and an individual’s connectedness to nature influences the degree to which they perceive natural, but not urban environments, to be restorative. As all three groups declined in their sustained attention performance, this suggests that there is a time-on-task effect whereby sustained attention performance declines over time because there is a depletion of attention resources. Although nature exposure did not restore attention, the results suggest that there is a beneficial effect of viewing a meadow and ocean on perceived restoration. These findings contribute to the growing literature on the impact of nature breaks on sustained attention performance. These results may be published in a journal.