three people on top of a fog covered mountain on their cellphones
PHOTO: Cristian Grecu

Summer’s here again and it’s time to hit the trails. But if you plan to recharge your mental batteries with a visit to nature, be sure to leave your smartphone behind.

Nature Abhors a Smartphone

Nature’s restorative powers have been well-known since ancient times. Greek and Roman philosophers such as Plato, Cicero and Pliny all lauded the virtues of wandering through gardens to acquire inspiration. The Bible’s Song of Songs attests to the restorative power of green settings by highlighting how easy it is to unwind in nature, “I went down into the garden … to look at the green plants of the valley …. Before I was aware, my soul set me upon the chariots of my princely people.”  

But another element is threatening nature's restorative powers by monopolizing our attention: technology. This threat isn't entirely new. Back in 1846, when the railroad and the telegraph were still in their infancy, Thoreau warned from the serenity of Walden Pond, that “our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract us from serious things.”

But mobile devices are taking this threat to a whole new level. A recent study found that using mobile devices in nature substantially reduces nature’s regenerative effects on attention and focus. The study, entitled "How to Waste a Break: Using Portable Electronic Devices Substantially Counteracts Attention Enhancement Effects of Green Spaces," found that, “when individuals spend time in green outdoor environments without engaging their laptop computers, their attentional functioning improves. The same is not true for individuals who use their laptops in green settings … for these individuals, a 15-min break was the equivalent of no break at all.” 

No break at all? You might as well have stayed at the office. The study concludes that “given that using an electronic device in a restorative setting mitigates the benefits on attention of that setting, individuals would be wise to put away their laptops and other electronic devices in restorative settings to restore their capacity to pay attention.”  

Related Article: Step Away From the Phone: Mobile Addiction Will Probably Get Worse Before It Gets Better

Nature Reduces Stress and Restores Attention

The restorative power of nature is formidable. In fact, you don’t even have to immerse yourself in nature to acquire its benefits. A study of high school students in the UK found enhanced cognitive patterns in teenagers who were simply exposed to views of nature from their classroom windows. Another study reached similar conclusions, observing college students who had "green views" from their dormitory windows.

While we can intuitively accept the restorative nature of green surroundings, it is not immediately clear why it works. University of Michigan psychologist Stephen Kaplan proposed a potential reason in what he called the Attention Restoration Theory (ART). The theory seeks to connect the restorative influence of nature on reducing the stress brought on by prolonged effort exerted in completing cognitively demanding tasks.

In a paper entitled The Restorative Benefits of Nature, Kaplan put forth the following four conditions an environment must possess to reduce stress and restore attention:

  • Being Away — The environment must free you from mental activity that demands directed attention, so you can "get away from it all."  
  • Fascination — The environment needs to generate a sense of awe.
  • Extension — The environment must be rich enough and coherent enough that it constitutes "a whole other world" from its current surroundings.
  • Compatibility — The environment must embody a harmony between "what you are trying to do and what you would like to do." For example, trying to relax and the potential of the environment to fulfill this desire.

It is easy to see how nature scenes like beautiful seascapes, mountains and green spaces fulfill these requirements for most people.

Related Article: Conquer Your Workplace Distractions

The Ever-Present Attention Drain

Now for the bad news. A number of empirical studies have found a link between the presence of a mobile device and attention depletion — the same attention that nature is so effective in restoring. One such study, published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, entitled "Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of a One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Cognitive Capacity," found a positive correlation between the presence of a mobile device and an adverse effect on two measures of cognitive capacity — available working memory capacity and functional fluid intelligence, such as reasoning, problem solving and creativity. The study suggests the more you are connected to your device, the stronger the influence on your ability to think. The paper concludes “those who depend most on their devices suffer the most from their salience and benefit the most from their absence.” 

Even if you are not an addict, you are still affected. You might be thinking, “I’ve got this licked — I put my phone on ‘silent mode’ or turn it over so the screen is not visible.” Well, scrap that. The study concludes these intuitive fixes are “likely futile.” In fact, only one solution was truly effective … separation from the smartphone.

So, ditch the mobile device — leave it in the car and walk away. Hike in the forest, take a stroll on the beach, or climb a mountain. Take a deep breath and relax. Don’t worry, there will always be time to respond to the dozens of emails, endless text messages, and missed phone calls when you get back. Enjoy your summer!