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Intelligence Health

We are less focused than a goldfish


Words by Georgie Sinclair

Illustrations by Stephanie F. Scholz

This is not surprising, the digital age has brought with it a stream of daily distractions, temptations and entertainment that are impossible to resist. We may seem to have adapted quickly to co-exist with digital technologies, but the pressure of keeping up to date with the media and remaining constantly ‘connected’ via apps such as Snapchat and Twitter is quite unnatural for humankind. How can we remain focused in a world which is becoming more technologically demanding? Ironically, in this case, we should beat around the proverbial bush, because the solution is (of course), plants!

Plants Trigger Productivity

Our story begins (and ends) with a theory developed by psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan called Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which states that scenes of plants, flowers and nature improve our concentration. The theory has inspired a wave of experiments since it was introduced 1989. One study by The Horticultural Research Institute in the U.S.A found that participants in a room with plants recorded 12% faster reaction time during a computer test than those in a room without any greenery. They also noted a lower increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and better overall emotional stability during and after the time of the test. The plants have an immediate effect on us, too. Another study at the University of Melbourne found that people reacted faster after they looked at a flowering green roof during a ‘micro-break’ as short as 40 seconds. The reaction time of those whose view was just a concrete roof got progressively worse over the three consecutive tests.

“Traffic jams, work conflicts and smart phones suck up our mental energy”

Plants and flowers help to stimulate our mental functioning as they engage what we call our ‘Indirect Attention’. These are things that require little mental energy. We are far more familiar with scenes of nature than we are with technology and the daily processes of urban living. Indeed, our relationship with nature does go back to the dawn of mankind. Traffic jams, work conflicts and smartphones, on the other hand, require our ‘Direct Attention’. Over time, these suck up our mental energy. Not only do plants give our weary minds ‘time out’ from our modern living habits, they actually help us to restore our attention span with their comforting presence. Thus enabling us to be far more productive and efficient. 

“Could mental fatigue be restored by plants and flowers?”

The relevance of this research doesn’t begin and end in the work environment. Mental exhaustion can trigger more serious emotional outbursts such as anger and even violence.

With ART’s success rate proving high, researchers at the University of Illinois wanted to find out whether aggression, mental fatigue and nature were linked. In a controlled study on the behaviour of the residents of an inner city housing estate they asked, are levels of aggression triggered by mental fatigue? And could mental fatigue be restored by the presence of plants and flowers?

The study found that domestic abuse – from mild verbal abuse to severe physical violence – occurred much more frequently amongst residents whose apartments were further away from vegetation and plant life. Intensive interviewing and close observation over the year long period also found that these residents were suffering far more severely from chronic fatigue, and were scoring much lower in focus and performance tests.

What does this mean?

We city dwellers have a lot more to think about than just the hours we spend glued to our smartphones. We are evolving to catch up with new physical and digital landscapes, but we aren’t getting there quite fast enough. Poor attention is one unlucky side effect, lashing out at our loved ones is another.

There are tonnes of theories predicting how humans may or may not evolve. These vary from dystopian nightmare – think gene selection for the privileged class – to intergalactic fantasies in which the human race relocates to a different planet altogether. But whichever they are, they all seem to acknowledge that technology has a permanent if not essential seat in our future. So, as we head toward the inevitable, we should take a moment to think of the things that make us feel good. For our generation at least, the pleasure of walking through a park and being close by plants, flowers and nature is hardwired into our DNA, and we should do our best to relish and preserve that. If technology holds so much influence over us, then why shouldn’t plants? We’ll let the proof speak for itself!

Want to know more? Dig in to our reading list:

The Experience of Nature

Aggression and Violence in the Inner City 

40-second Green Roof Views Sustain Attention: The Role of Micro-breaks in Attention Restoration

Interior Plants Improve Worker Productivity