When we get closer to nature -be it untouched wilderness or a backyard tree-we do our overstressed brains a favor. – David Strayer
Our minds have become busier than ever before. We are constantly bombarded with facts and pseudo-facts, rumors, and news. The modern world we live in forces us to be switched on all the time, which can be quite detrimental to our health. We often feel overwhelmed, confused, and fed up.
You probably know what I’m talking about – that feeling of cotton wool inside your head. A kind of brain fog that makes even the simplest activities hard to perform. Nowadays, we are more tired, forgetful, and preoccupied with needless worries over the same old issues without having a break. However, the capacity of our minds to concentrate is limited, and overdoing it inevitably results in physical and mental (attention) fatigue.
Let’s do a small experiment: take a flashlight and point it at a wall. If you walk towards it holding the flashlight, the light will contract. The closer you get, the more concentrated the light beam will be. Once you come to an inch from the wall, the beam of light will become a tight, bright circle.
Our attention is a lot like this light beam. We can either focus it intensely on something or relax it, allowing it to diffuse. According to one research into various types of attention, it was established that some kinds of attention could tire our brains and contribute to rising stress, anxiety, and other health issues. On the other hand, activities that soften and broaden our attention can reinvigorate our brains and promote cognitive and psychological well-being.
Whenever we direct our attention on something, it requires effort. Even more, an effort is needed when we deal with distractions or a boring subject. As the aforementioned research points out, our attention can wear out, and when that happens, a lot can go wrong. For example, our ability to concentrate declines, as well as our willpower and decision-making abilities. Attention fatigue can also cause stress and burnout.
The bustling urban environment in which we live, multitasking, loud noises, distractions, and poor sleep also promote attention fatigue. Contrary to this, some activities can reinvigorate our brains in a way that supports directed attention, and one of the most effective of these is spending time in nature.
According to one study, what makes the natural environment so restorative is the mix of attracting involuntary attention softly and at the same time limiting the need for directed attention. Nature seems to hit that sweet spot. This state is called soft fascination.
Soft fascination can be defined as attention held by a less active or stimulating activity that provides the opportunity to reflect and introspect. Soft fascination involves reflection and allows sense-making, contrary to hard fascination, which is focused on tasks, entertainment, and reducing boredom.
The idea behind soft fascination is that our minds require moments of downtime when our attention is softly focused (for instance, during meditation or spending time outdoors) rather than intensely focused while draining mental energy, such as working hard to meet a deadline or vigorously exercising.
When we practice soft fascination in nature, we allow ourselves to pause, and by spending time in such a restorative environment, we unconsciously invite new ideas, opportunities, solutions, healing, and alignment with something much bigger than us.
We invite things to come to us instead of chasing them with effort. It is a state of kindness, compassion, and wisdom, which goes far beyond the brainy intelligence of the state of intense focus. Although hard fascination may bring us effectivity, soft fascination brings us efficiency, helping us reach the desired outcome without wasting our time, energy, or resources. This state is more intuitive and aligned with our heart and soul.
Experiencing the state of effortless attention can happen in a number of ways – walking in the woods, hiking along a trail, sitting in the park, or by a stream watching water spilling and tumbling over rocks. The experience of being in nature alone is transformative and can cause our emotional state to be uplifted and our mental balance restored.
The restorative power of the natural environment is not something that was discovered recently. While it may be something new to scientists, philosophers, writers, and poets have had the knowledge of this for a long time. Frank Lloyd Wright famously said: ‘Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.’ Maxime Lagace said: ‘By discovering nature, you discover yourself.’ pointing out to nature’s ability to make us refocus on ourselves. Henry David Thoreau wrote: ‘I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.’ They certainly were onto something.
Nowadays, so many outside influences are keeping us indoors, away from the therapeutic powers of nature. Escaping the modern world and daily pressures to enjoy nature, if only for a couple of minutes, is vital for our physical and mental health and can give us the much-needed boost to show up in our daily lives. Therefore, put your shoes on and go outside to ground yourself, recalibrate, and emotionally reset. In other words, answer the call of nature and enjoy!