Mental Health Awareness Week: “Why do Humans Love the Great Outdoors?”

“Why do Humans Love the Great Outdoors?” 

Understanding ART theory and restorative environments with Carys;

Most of us will know that green space and being outdoors is widely seen as being good for us. Exposure to green spaces has been linked to improved focus, wellbeing, general mood, and even faster surgery recovery times. What we might be less familiar with is the theories behind why green space is good for us – why do we like it so much? Psychologists don’t like to give definitive answers to anything(!), but here are the current, widely accepted, mechanisms for why we so enjoy the great outdoors.

One theory is that these spaces help us to reset. The concept of restorative spaces is rooted in our psychological understanding of attention. Human beings have two different types of attention; directed attention and effortless attention (sometimes known as indirect). 

Directed attention is what we might call ‘focus’. This is when we’re making an effort to pay attention, perhaps a piece of work. Effortless attention is, as the name suggests, our peripheral or creative attention – it’s when we attend to things without conscious effort, such as an exciting movie or an eye-catching piece of artwork.  

No prizes for guessing which of these is a finite resource and which we can do forever.

Directed attention, or focus, is a finite resource. Our brains can only do so much of it before the tanks are depleted and we have to stop. This will be a familiar feeling to most of us, where it suddenly becomes impossible to focus on the task at hand, and nothing seems to help.  

This is where green – or restorative – space comes in. The Attention Restoration Theory (ART) states that restorative spaces help to restore our focus reserves. By situating ourselves in an environment which requires no (or minimal) focused effort from our brains, we allow our directed attention to replete itself.  

(We should pause here to note that, whilst nature and green spaces are restorative environments for the majority of us, some people may actually feel more relaxed in urban or home environments. It’s important to understand which environments work best for you.)

The reason green space works for so many of us is that nature has an abundance of what we call ‘soft fascinations’. Plants, clouds, leaves rustling, lakes and streams are all examples of ‘soft fascinations’ or natural points of interest, which can capture our attention and engagement without requiring conscious focus. 

That’s why a short stroll in the park, or even just time spent caring for a houseplant, can allow your brain time to recover from stress. Whether you perceive it consciously or not, our brains are working throughout the day, and could really do with taking a break now and then!  

As an environmental psychologist, I work closely with our Architects and Interiors team, to make sure we incorporate restorative environments and soft fascination points into as many of our designs as possible. Whether you’re in the office, down the shop, in the gym, or walking through your local town centre, the built environment should be used to recharge our batteries as much as possible.  

About Carys: 

Carys is an Environmental Psychologist, with degrees from Sunderland and Surrey Universities. She works closely within GT3 Architects project teams, to ensure our People Architecture approach is incorporated at every stage of a project. With a particular focus on our workplace consultancy service, Carys helps our architects really get to know the users of our spaces before we design them. Engaging users in the design process not only helps to produce better spaces, but helps to generate buy-in and enthusiasm from user groups, resulting in happier spaces overall.