New research into views that can’t be missed

Published: 19 July 2017 at 19:00

Woman looking at a sunset

Brain recovers quicker from viewing scenes that don’t capture our attention

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People find it harder to relax within distracting environments, even if they are natural, according to new research published today by the journal PLOS ONE – showing that even a peaceful walk in the country won’t necessarily clear your head if attention-grabbing features are visible.

A study led by Dr David Pearson, of Anglia Ruskin University, found that people took longer to mentally recover from scenes that strongly captured their attention even if those scenes were natural and not urban.

Researchers aimed to scientifically test Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which was developed in the 1980s and states that “built” scenes place a greater load on attentional resources than natural scenes.

They picked salient features within both natural and built-up environments and measured how distracting they were to people by showing them a series of photos, both in colour and greyscale, and asked them to respond as quickly as possibly by indicating whether they thought the image was from a man-made or natural scene.

Participants were also shown mixed scenes, for example a housing estate with natural features such as ponds, or a field with an electricity pylon in the middle.

Although man-made scenes were detected with consistently shorter response times than natural scenes in both colour and in black and white, the researchers also found that people took longer to mentally recover from fatigue following completion of a task that demanded concentration (having to remember a long sequence of numbers in reverse order) after viewing a highly-salient scene, either natural or man-made, than when they viewed a scene with fewer salient features.

Dr Pearson, Reader in Psychology at Anglia Ruskin, said:

“Our study helps develop the predictions made by ART, and is the first to experimentally demonstrate an important link between the saliency of natural and man-made scenes and how viewing them helps us recover from mental fatigue.

“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.”

The full paper can be read online at https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0169997