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Nature offers workers restorative benefits

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IUPUC psychology professor Gary Felsten stands in front of a large screen monitor showing a slide of the campus. Felsten's study of restorative environment has been featured in an article in the French magazine
IUPUC psychology professor Gary Felsten stands in front of a large screen monitor showing a slide of the campus. Felsten's study of restorative environment has been featured in an article in the French magazine "Le monde d I'intelligence". (Joe Harpring | The Republic)

Gary Felsten occasionally takes a break from his work at IUPUC and strolls around the campus to spend some time in a nature setting. He knows from his own research that spending as little as 5 or 10 minutes in nature — away from his office and computer — can reduce stress and regenerate his concentration.

Felsten, who has published articles on cognitive regeneration, recently was featured in a French magazine, Le Monde de l’intelligence (The World of Intelligence), in a cover article about regenerating one’s creativity and concentration. The journal is part of Paris-based Mondeo Publishing SAS.

Available research indicates that spending time in or viewing nature has a restorative effect, said Felsten, associate dean for academic affairs at IUPUC.

The findings have some practical applications for employers and employees.

“People should take breaks from work and take a walk,” Felsten said.

The problem, he said, is that nature is not always readily available.

Not everyone’s office borders Mill Race Park, for example.

Felsten wanted to know what students would perceive to be a good environment to take a break from studying to regain their concentration. He conducted a survey among students at IUPUI and IUPUC to determine how attractive and restorative they considered indoor settings that had a view of nature vs. indoor settings that didn’t.

Students rated 34 photos on six measures, including how relaxing they were and whether they thought the setting would help them restore their ability to study for an exam.

The photos ranged from a stark indoor classroom setting with blank, white walls to an indoor setting with an outside view (of the Columbus Learning Center) to a streetscape with store fronts and cars to outdoor scenes that included green grass and colorful trees.

Students rated the pure nature scenes as most restorative, Felsten said — but they rated large indoor murals of nature scenes to be more beneficial than areas with a view of a more mundane outdoor setting.

Felsten said that the results suggested that while direct exposure to nature probably has the greatest restorative effect, looking through a window or even at images of nature could harbor some benefit.

This finding surprised Gilles Marchand, the author of the article in the French magazine.

Marchand, a science writer, said he already had a familiarity with attention restoration theory through other studies when he decided to write an article about the power of nature on cognitive regeneration. While doing research on that article, Marchand found Felsten’s research and communicated with him via email.

“I was surprised to learn that (not) only direct exposure to nature can be restorative, but also images of nature,” Marchand said. “Other studies indicate (that) indoor plants can be beneficial to our attention, which is ... good (news) for people (who) live in big cities.”

The theory behind the results, Felsten said, is that people are programmed to find natural settings — trees, grass, rivers or waterfalls — attractive and restorative, because through the millennia, they represented environments in which people could survive. They could find drink, food and materials to build shelter. Scenes of desolate deserts in Africa or swampy, stifling jungles in South America, for example, are unlikely to be perceived as restorative as the rolling hills of Brown County.

Inspired in part by his fascination with architecture, Felsten wondered whether attractive man-made settings, such as the sleepy downtown area of a small, historic European city, could have a similar restorative impact as exposure to idyllic nature scenes.

In a follow-up study, students rated the attractiveness and restorativeness of four photos, including an attractive nature scene (Mill Race Park in spring), an attractive urban scene (small town in Europe), a moderately attractive nature scene (Mill Race Park in winter, including trees without leaves and no snow on the ground) and a moderately attractive urban scene (the skyline of a large city with an interstate in the foreground).

Students said they found the same level of attraction between Mill Race in spring and European settings, and a slightly lower but virtually equal level of attraction between the Mill Race Park in winter and urban skyline setting.

In a third study, the Mill Race Park settings fared much better when students were asked which of the four scenes would allow them to reduce stress, Felsten said.

Felsten said he was pleased to receive Marchand’s inquiry in part because it meant international exposure to his work — but also because it marked his first research on restorative environments. Felsten’s prior research had focused on what personality factors contribute to more stress.

“Restorative environments contribute to better cognitive functioning and less stress, resulting in healthier, happier and more productive individuals,” Felsten said.

Columbus Regional Hospital was in the process of building a nature garden in 2008 when the June flood severely damaged the hospital. Money for the project had to be reallocated, Felsten said.

Providing views of nature through windows also will help, he said. And even murals of nature scenes can help improve employees’ attention and reduce their stress.

Many hospitals, for example, have installed murals of nature scenes to aid patient recovery, Felsten said.

Other stress-relieving activities, such as exercising, reading or listening to music, can be combined with spending time in nature to enhance the restorative effect.

Marchand said that while he has taken note of Felsten’s research, he has not taken many steps to act upon it. He did say, however, that his computer desktop now shows a nature photograph he took during a vacation to Jordan.

Felsten said that given the plentiful award-winning architecture in Columbus, he next would like to study what combination of nature and built structures can best help people reduce mental fatigue and stress.

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