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

Trees

Photo by Arnaud Mesureur on Unsplash

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. 

  • 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 erintheomplace.net.