ART: Why Staring at Trees Might be the Magic You Need Right Now


Photo by Arnaud Mesureur on Unsplash



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. 

  • Erin Skinner Smith

    Erin Skinner Smith wants every­one to slow down, eat real food, move their bod­ies, go out­side, and hit the pil­low a lit­tle ear­li­er for a more pur­pose­ful exis­tence. She is a pub­lished writer, yoga teacher, and mind­ful­ness coach. When she’s not stand­ing on her head or typ­ing on her trusty lap­top, you’ll find her read­ing, play­ing gui­tar, enjoy­ing a glass of bour­bon, or snug­gling on the couch with her peo­ple and pets. Send her a dig­i­tal high five at