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Why distracting environments are bad for us

Published: 23 March 2018 at 15:00

Electricity pylons in a field

Dr Pearson will present new research at UK Environmental Law Association event

Dr David Pearson will present new research at a UK Environmental Law Association event on Monday, 26 March called “Nature and wellbeing – why access to the natural world is critical for good health”.

With a growing body of work showing the positive association between natural environments and mental wellbeing, Dr Pearson, Reader in Cognitive Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, is investigating the reasons why

His recent research, published in the journal PLOS ONE, scientifically tested the Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which states that “built” scenes place a greater load on attentional resources than natural scenes.

His study found that people took longer to mentally recover from distracting environments that strongly captured their attention, even if those scenes were mainly natural rather than urban, for example a field containing an electricity pylon.

The fact that a walk in the country won’t necessarily clear your head if attention-grabbing features are visible contributes to the idea that “soft fascination” is particularly beneficial, with scenes such as an empty green field or a setting sun able to effortlessly hold your attention, allowing your mind to wander.

Dr Pearson, whose current research involves recording eye movements for natural and built environments, said:

“We found that while normally a natural scene is more restorative than an urban one, the presence of attention-demanding features in either environment means it takes the brain longer to recover from fatigue.

“Our research has helped to provide a more nuanced understanding of what entails a ‘restorative’ environment, and moves beyond the current approach of treating natural and built scenes as separate homogenous entities.”

In addition to Dr Pearson, Monday evening’s event in London also includes a talk from Dr William Bird MBE, CEO of Intelligent Health, looking at the health risks of urban environments.