Can’t See the Forest for Trees? Studies Show The Mental Benefits of Engaging With Nature
Can’t See the Forest for Trees? Studies Show The Mental Benefits of Engaging With Nature

Can’t See the Forest for Trees? Studies Show The Mental Benefits of Engaging With Nature

Our culture has too often talked in terms of conquering nature. This is about as sensible as for a caddis worm to talk of conquering the pond that supports it, or a drunk to start fighting the bed he is lying on. – Mary Midgley (1978)

Have you taken a forest bath lately? You might want to go for a walk in the green environment to benefit from its positive effects on mental health according to research.

I have wanted to write this post for a while as the trend is that more and more people live in urban environments with no easy acces to green environments which results in less engagement with nature (Cox et al, 2018). It is estimated that 55% of the world’s population live in urban areas at this moment, and this number is even estimated to increase to 68% by 2050.

In relation to urbanisation, one study found that people who live with green environments within a 3km radius show a greater buffer against stressful life events (Van den Berg et al, 2010). So, this post is also for the policy-makers, the city planners and for the future of nature perseveration.

We know from a large body of research that green environments contribute to people’s well-being and even reduce stress levels. I have written three posts about this topic in which I point to a number of studies.

See, for example, Connect With Nature, See Its Beauty and Improve Your Well-Being or The Sounds of Nature Reduce Stress or Urban Green Spaces Lower Stress Levels.

How Can Nature Improve Mental Health?

To answer this question, I want to emphasize the Attention Restoration Theory proposed by Rachel Kaplan and Stephen Kaplan in the book “The Experience of Nature – A Psychological Perspective” (1989). The book is by the way free to read online. In essence, the brain uses less energy processing information in the nature than it does in an urban environment.

Attention Restoration Theory holds that we have two types of attention: the voluntary and the involuntary attention. The voluntary attention requires mental effort: It is a proces where we direct our attention towards certain tasks. On the other hand, involuntary attention requires no effort: It manifests itself whenever we let the mind wander, e.g. when we detach from worry or problemsolving.

After using voluntary attention after a long day at job, we might experience a phenomenon called attention fatigue which might feel like mental fatigue. Attention fatigue will affect overall mental functioning, making tasks like planning and problemsolving more difficult.

Nature promotes the involuntary attention and it will therefore restore the capacity for voluntary attention, according to Kaplan.

Attentional fatigue can have many negative effects on people’s lives, studies show:

Is Attention Fatigue Important?

The role of directed attention in human functioning is, however, far more pervasive and more crucial than it might seem. Consider what would happen if one were unable to exert inhibitory control in perception and action. It would be impossible to focus in the face of distraction; thus many tasks could be carried out only under the most ideal of circumstances … It would be impossible to pursue purposes, since this requires keeping a goal in mind despite the challenge offered by an often uncooperative environment (p. 180).


A number of ingenious studies suggest just how unpleasant a mentally fatigued person can be. These studies have in common that they require participants to carry out attention-demanding tasks under conditions of high distraction. After exposure to such an experience individuals are less likely to help someone in need. They are also more aggressive, less tolerant, and less sensitive to socially important cues. Thus the consequences of fatigued attentional capacity are strikingly pervasive (p. 181).

Attention fatigue is also related to problems with exerting self-control due to a phenomenon called ego depletion: It is the idea that self-control draws upon a limited amount of mental resources that can be used up during the day, originally proposed by Baumeister in 1998 and it has later on been tested in hundreds of studies (for more, see my other posts “8 Scientific Facts About Self-Control” or “Self-Control Decreases Throughout the Day).

In regard to ego depletion, prof. Daniel Kahnemann has suggested that “… ego depletion is at least in part a loss of motivation. After exerting self-control in one task, you do not feel like making an effort in another, although you could do it if you really had to.”

Thanks for paying voluntary attention to this article, and make it have som rest now, perhaps?