ART: Why Staring at Trees Might be the Magic You Need Right Now
“THERE IS ALWAYS MUSIC AMONGST THE TREES IN THE GARDEN, BUT OUR HEARTS MUST BE VERY QUIET TO HEAR IT.”MINNIE AUMONIER
Last week I talked about the cognitive load of pop-up ads and scrolling banners on all sorts of screens. Our unconscious processing takes in each and every distraction, leaving us unable to concentrate or think clearly. This week I promised I would offer a simple solution to ease that cognitive friction.
Stare at trees.
Yup. That’s it. Stare at trees. Or a lake. At the clouds scuttling across the sky. At the ocean, desert, snowy hill, or pretty much any landscape that includes only things that predate mankind. No screens allowed and best done in silence. Just sit and stare.
It won’t take long before you feel your gaze softening — like your eyeballs are taking a good nap. Science refers to this effortless, so-called soft attention as Attention Restoration Theory (or ART). ART, a theory developed and popularized by Stephen and Rachel Kaplan, holds that when we focus on a natural landscape, our concentrated thoughts and opinions will pass by, leaving us in a state of mental recovery. This only works in environments that don’t pull focus relentlessly (as opposed to scrolling on social media or watching televised sports, where pop-ups are constantly vying for our attention).
Imagine you have a flashlight. If you walk really close to the wall, the beam will be very distinct and concentrated. This is your brain on a screen. But as you move backward in space, further from the wall, the beam becomes diffuse and gauzy. This is soft attention, or ART in action.
It isn’t even simply about being outside, even though we know that to be good for us as well. Consider a stroll down a busy street. We have to scan the environment for moving cars, are distracted by horns and sirens, must pay attention to flashing traffic signals lest we get squashed. It’s too much cognitive load.
But when we just sit and stare at trees, there isn’t enough to concentrate on. Our thoughts grow gauzy and diffuse and it’s in this state our brain can repair and recharge itself.
It’s been suggested that our visual cortex feels most at home in places where fractals occur naturally. Essentially, a fractal is an image that exhibits similar, repeating patterns, like branches that split off into twigs that form leaves, etc. Studies have shown that when people look at images with a fractal dimension of between 1.3 and 1.5, they quickly slide into soft attention, which is an alpha brain state.
We find fractals at every level of the forest ecosystem, as well as in clouds, snowflakes, mountain ranges, and the geographic terrain of a coastline. They are also found, unsurprisingly, in the movement of the eye’s retina.
Of course they are, right? Our eyes evolved to look at landscapes as we scouted food, shelter, and danger. The mathematical design of pixelated things – like pop-up ads and visual incoming text alerts – is completely wrong, fractal-wise. Pixelated images turn out to be measurably uncomfortable to look at, because the text is in a striped pattern that moves about the page as we read. The design is as far away from nature as we can get. It’s like we know that looking at a screen is going to stress us out, and yet we can’t break the addiction.
So go stare at trees. I probably won’t struggle to convince you that staring at trees works, but I bet few of you actually take the initiative to sit still for any length of time and just look at a landscape. This goes against what we were told productivity looks like. Further, we are all truly addicted to our phones. It sounds crazy – and a little scary – to consider leaving it plugged and silenced while you go stare out a window for 10 or 15 minutes.
But do it anyway. After you’re done, then you can grab your phone and snap a pic of your view.