Nature’s Broken Path to Restoration. A Critical Look at Attention Restoration Theory
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Description: Over the past three decades, a growing body of environmental psychology research has demonstrated that interacting with natural environments – and especially greenspace – can have beneficial psychological effects on human individuals. One influential and widely-cited theoretical account to explain such effects is Attention Restoration Theory (ART). ART zooms in on the cognitive benefits nature can yield, and assumes that when an individual’s ability to concentrate or direct attention has become depleted, then nature is well-equipped to replenish this capacity. Nature’s restorative potential is thought to especially derive from its soft fascinating characteristics; these can put an individual in an effortless mode of attention, thereby giving directed attention a relative opportunity to rest and replenish itself. Although ART has been highly influential in the field of restoration studies and continues to inspire health promotion interventions, with the current paper we aim to show that the framework has important empirical and conceptual shortcomings. We specifically aim to show (a) that some of ART’s principal theoretical notions are vague (e.g., soft fascination), have remained underdeveloped, and lack a clear operationalization, (b) that the framework has failed to (adequately) test its main theoretical predictions (i.e., that nature effects are recovery effects), and (c) that there is currently little support for the ART-based assumption that restoration is – or derives from – an ancient evolved adaptive response. We conclude our paper with discussing four outstanding questions for ART, and make methodological suggestions that could potentially address some of ART’s current shortcomings.