Through the Lens of Attention Restoration Theory: The Pursuit of Learning in Gardens throughout History

Amy Thielen,
Karen R. Diller,
Washington State University Vancouver

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Abstract: Attention Restoration Theory (ART), the environmental psychology framework developed by S. Kaplan, has been helpful in explaining the restorative properties of natural settings for individuals experiencing cognitive depletion. Although ART associated research has focused exclusively on discerning the restorative properties of modern day environments, we wanted to explore the restorative aspects of natural settings, specifically gardens, in the past. Notably, we wanted to examine whether the properties that made historic environments restorative for cognitive depletion also made the natural settings conducive for learning and contemplation among the historic cultures researched. By applying the properties of ART to sites in the ancient Mediterranean (Greece and Rome), Song and Yuan Dynasties in China, and Stuart through Victorian England, we seek to show how the historic environmental sites exhibited the same restorative cognitive effects of present day environments and stimulated learning and intellectual contemplation.

Introduction: Environmental psychologists today are finding connections between being in green spaces (nature, gardens) and the ability to direct one’s attention to important matters. Although most of this research is being applied to urban design, environmental studies, and healthcare, there are some attempts to apply what is being learned to the field of education. Researchers are beginning to ask whether being in nature, having indoor plants, or viewing gardens assists in the learning process by helping people to restore their ability to direct their attention to important tasks. Although demonstrating through scientific methods the connection between being in green spaces and the ability to study and learn is somewhat new, it could be viewed as a rediscovery of long cultural traditions that have existed in both Eastern and Western cultures. Throughout history people have retreated to specific places in order to stimulate their intellectual thought, gain inspiration, or contemplate philosophical and sacred ideas.

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