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Eric Schulzke
University of Utah students Jonna Turrill, in purple, and Emily Scott prepare Halley Mallory for a wilderness brain scan at Sand Island near Bluff, Utah as part of David Strayer's Cognition in the Wild course.

A stone's throw from bluffs peppered with ancient Anasazi petroglyphs, the river flows smooth and fast along a reed-covered bank shaded by willows. Students with EEG caps wander from a tent through the reeds to a sandy river bank, where they will meditate while laptops record their brain activity. There is no sound but the river and the wind.

The students are taking a cognition in the wilderness class taught by professor David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah. The wires will measure the students' brain waves to see if time spent in the wilderness away from cellphones and urban complexity has relaxed the prefrontal cortex, the brain's central command center.

Strayer is contributing to a growing body of research that suggests a brain cannot function at peak performance for long without "restorative" breaks. The brain is like a muscle, Strayer argues, not a machine. Imagine a weight lifter who pushes the same muscle every day without ever allowing it to rest and repair. That, Strayer believes, is what most of us do to our brains.

Known as attention restoration theory, this line of research has vital implications in the social spaces where educational, health and equality challenges collide. Want to reduce the use of ADHD drugs among schoolchildren? Reduce the strain of urban life on low-income children? Help surgery patients recover more quickly with fewer complications?

While much research remains to be done, attention restoration theory may have some answers to these challenges. And the good news is you don't have to travel to a remote wilderness to tap into them.

Tethered and overstimulated

Without regular mental release, ART theorists argue, humans lose their sense of well-being and become less productive.

“We run our directed attention into the ground, and we don’t even know we are doing it,” says Rachel Kaplan, an emeritus psychology professor at the University of Michigan, who, along with her husband, Stephen Kaplan, helped create attention restoration theory in the 1960s and 1970s.

But Kaplan readily acknowledges that she and her colleagues have much to learn. “It’s intriguing that something as important as being restored is so difficult for us to truly understand,” Kaplan said. “We are constantly pushing ourselves and flooding our brains with stimulation, and yet we know so little about how restoration works.”

Attention restoration researchers are swimming against a tide, trying to figure how mental rejuvenation works — even as technology offers more and more ways to flood our minds with information and diversion.

“The constancy of the stimulation and the speed of the input has increased enormously,” Kaplan said.

“The reason we are having to medicate these kids is that we are pushing them more and more into a continuous artificial environment,” Strayer agrees. “Screen time has exploded, while the amount of space the kids have to explore has shrunk."

Strayer points to a 2007 study in Britain that shows the shrinking roaming horizon of a child over four generations, down from six miles to 300 yards, as well as increasing complexity and safety fears, have tightened the leash on children. Meanwhile, an American Academy of Pediatrics study tells us that by the age of 4, 75 percent of children surveyed had their own mobile devices.

Soft fascination

The antidote, attention restoration theory suggests, is to engage something that grabs you in a pleasing way but does not require anything of the mind, allowing it to wander and regenerate. They call this “soft fascination,” which Kaplan says can be found in various places such as fish tanks, fireplaces, running water and, of course, leafy green views out windows.

It's a bit counterintuitive, but ART theorists argue that giving the mind something to occupy it while it mulls critical issues subconsciously or semi-consciously is a bit like giving a child a toy at the doctor's office: When there is important work to be done, sometimes distracting the conscious self gives you the space to focus.

“Soft fascination gives directed attention a chance to recover,” Kaplan said, “occupying the mind but letting it ponder what it needs to work on."

The current agenda for Kaplan and her colleagues is to figure out how attention restoration works. Beyond nature and greenery, researchers are looking for common environments that offer productive soft fascination.

Giving people a questionnaire about environments they find enjoyable or relaxing misses the point, Kaplan argues. We may enjoy checking our cellphones or listening to music. But whether these preferred breaks actually rejuvenate the mind in a way that would show up on an fMRI, EEG or attention test is doubtful.

Generations have now sought relaxation and rejuvenation with television, Kaplan says. But it may not work as soft fascination at all. Television, she suspects, overstimulates the brain rather than resting it. The same may be true of smartphones, sports, radio and the now-popular podcasts, all of which are compelling. “But they don’t let your mind wander, or give you room to ponder,” she says.

Kaplan says her main focus has been on “micro-restorative” releases, which lie at the opposite extreme from the proverbial vacation. She and her colleagues have, for example, long been particularly interested in window views.

Strayer recognizes the importance of close-to-home releases. One of his graduate students, he says, has gotten very strong EEG results from having students stroll in Red Butte Gardens, a man-made "natural" environment near the University of Utah.

Wind, water and rock

But Strayer also wants to measure the effect of pure nature in heavy doses.

And so, on a mild, breezy spring afternoon at the edge of the San Juan River in southern Utah's remote wilderness, University of Utah graduate students prepare to measure the brain waves of their undergraduate peers.

The hypothesis is that constantly straining the prefrontal cortex, "the decision-making, multitasking, problem-solving, higher order part of the brain," depletes reserves, much as an engine that runs too hot too long can blow a gasket. Unplugging the brain allows it to recharge.

If Strayer is right, the EEGs hooked up to the students will show less energy coming from “frontal-midline theta" waves. The Fm theta waves reflect conceptual thinking and sustained attention. A quiet EEG along the riverbank, he suspects, reflects a muscle at rest, healing for return to action.

Strayer's class did the same tests before they left Salt Lake City on April 13, and repeated the tests again a week after returning that Sunday.

Strayer evokes an important emerging concept in neuroscience, called the "default mode network," a part of the brain that takes over when we daydream, meditate or experience "soft fascination."

A recent article in Nature Review Neurology suggests that "when individuals are left to think to themselves, a so-called default network of the brain is engaged, allowing the individual to daydream, reflect on their past, imagine possible future scenarios and consider the viewpoints of others. These flexible self-relevant mental explorations enable the anticipation and evaluation of events before they occur, and are essential for successful social interactions."

What Strayer is looking for along this idyllic river bank is to see heightened activity in the default mode and a quieting of the prefrontal cortex. He expects to see the reverse both in the initial readings on campus and again when they return.

"You can’t do fMRIs in the desert," Strayer says, referring to the enormous scanners that show brain activity in real-time imaging. "But these portable EEG units allow us to directly ask the interesting questions about how restoration works and what physical aspects of the environment are most critical.”

Strayer's wilderness work, he hopes, points to a better understanding of deep restoration and also better data for understanding the "micro-restorations" that interest Kaplan, because not everyone can escape as often or as far as their brain would like.

Better than Ritalin

There is an axiom in photography that your best camera is the one you have with you. In that spirit, the best escape may be the window beside you.

Just last month, two researchers at the University of Illinois found new evidence that windows matter. Dongying Li and Bill Sullivan did a controlled study at five different Chicago high schools, assigning students to classrooms with no windows, windows with barren views, such as a wall or a gravel yard, and windows with green views.

They asked the students to do 30 minutes of proofreading, speech and math exercises. “We aimed for typical high school activities that would create a moderate amount of stress and mental fatigue,” Li said.

Students were then given an attention test, followed by a 10-minute break, during which they remained seated. This was followed by another attention test.

The results are striking. While students were focused on the work, there was no difference in performance. But students with the green view rooms showed a 17 percent increase in attention performance after the break, while those in the barren view and windowless rooms gained no benefit from the break at all.

“If you take a dose of Ritalin, you’d expect to increase your performance on the type of test we did by 15 to 20 percent,” Sullivan said. “So a 10-minute break with a window with a green view was equivalent to taking a potent attention deficit disorder drug.”

If a 10-minute break with varying windows makes such a difference, what would be the cumulative impact of spending one’s entire youth in the home and neighborhood equivalent of the barren or no-view room?

In her current study, Li is looking at that question, using GPS wristwatches to track the daily routes of Chicago adolescents and then using Google street views at 15-second intervals to code their surrounding green space and looking for differences in mood and focus.

Girls and boys

Li’s coauthor, Bill Sullivan, is a leading force in attention restoration studies, having participated in multiple studies of Chicago public housing projects.

In one widely noted 2002 study, Sullivan and two University of Illinois colleagues found that girls in apartments that had green views out their window did markedly better on tests for attention, impulse control and delayed gratification than did their counterparts in barren-view apartments. None of the families requested their apartment assignments, so their locations were random.

The researchers looked at girls and boys between 7 and 12 years old. Sullivan says the team was “dumbfounded” when it found that the green views mattered for girls but not for boys. It wasn’t until they asked mothers whose children had been in the study that the reason became apparent.

“The mothers said it was so obvious,” Sullivan says. “This is a dangerous place. We don’t let our girls go far from home. But the boys are boys: they’ll go wherever they want.” The girls, they concluded, were operating in a much smaller territory, so the effect of their home windows was much greater.

Hospital windows

Another window study, published in 1984 by Robert Ulrich, now at Texas A&M University, compared gall bladder surgery patients over a 10-year period on a single floor of a hospital. One side looked out on a brick wall, the other on leafy trees.

After controlling for numerous variables, the study found that those in green-view rooms spent less time in the hospital, were less likely to use narcotic painkillers and had fewer negative notes — “needs encouragement,” “upset and crying,” etc. — recorded by nurses in their records. On the last point, the difference was 3.96 average negative notes for barren views vs. 1.13 for green views.

Another 2008 window study by Rodney Matsuoka at the University of Michigan controlled for “socio-economic status, racial/ethnic makeup, building age, and size of enrollment,” but still found that students with leafier views from cafeterias and classrooms had “higher standardized test scores, graduation rates, and percentages of students planning to attend college, and lower occurrences of criminal behavior.”

Not just green

Much of current attention research, as we have seen, focuses on “greening the environment” — window views and other aspects of urban planning.

Rachel Kaplan is convinced that green views matter, but she doesn’t see this as the whole story. “I really don’t think that the only way to be restored is in pure nature.”

Likewise Ulrich, in his study of hospital rooms, suggested that for some long-term patients, a view of a city street with people walking and cars moving about might be more restorative than simple greenery.

Then there is the question of whether views need to be green. Are students in Arizona, where “xeriscaping” is heavy on rock and greenery is limited, at a window disadvantage? Can a beautiful desert landscape serve the purpose?

“I don’t know. I don’t know if anyone knows,” Strayer says. “But my classes in the desert show remarkable levels of restoration. My intuition is that there is very little difference. It’s not green space per se: it’s non-man-made space.”

But Strayer sees a need for more research on all fronts: How much nature? What kind of nature? Are green spaces better than deserts? "That's how this kind of research works," he says. "You show that there is some kind of benefit, and then hone questions inward from there."

Even going through city parks can be restorative, Strayer said. But, he adds, don’t bring your smartphone along.

His wilderness work, he hopes, points to a better understanding of deep restoration and also better data for understanding the "micro-restorations" that interest Kaplan. Because not everyone can escape to a silent wilderness river as often as their brain would like.

Email: eschulzke@deseretnews.com