This week in “science making its way around the Internet” — looking at a picture of a green roof (which is to say, a roof that has been planted with green plants and wildflowers, not a roof that has been painted green or equipped with solar panels) for forty seconds is more mentally restorative than looking at a concrete roof for forty seconds.
The study everyone is currently talking about was actually someone’s PhD thesis research. Kate Lee, the researcher, recruited a bunch of students to do a boring, repetitive task that nonetheless demanded sustained attention. (They had to press a key if they saw any number but 3; if it was a 3, they had to not press the key.) They did this task for five minutes, then took a forty-second break to stare at a picture, then did the task for another five minutes. You can see the two pictures in this article, and I have to say, I find the results here pretty solidly intuitive. That blank concrete roof is not “restorative” to look at in any way.
This isn’t actually a new finding. Well, the fact that she used a green roof was new, I guess. Lee appears to be a fan of green roofs, and part of the theory here is that by planting your roof full of green things, all the people in nearby buildings will benefit, at least the ones working near windows on floors that are higher than the top of your building. The initial premise of “Attention Restoration Theory,” that exposure to nature or pictures of nature can make it easier to concentrate on your work, was proposed in the 1980s and there was research that came out in 2008 that validated it. In the 2008 study, participants went for a 50-minute walk either through a tree-lined park or through city streets amd performance in tasks was better after a nature walk. In the second part of the study, they spent ten minutes looking at pictures either of nature, or of cityscapes; again, nature pictures were more restorative.
What was most interesting about Kate Lee’s research was not the “green roofs” aspect but the fact that she found the even a forty-second “microbreak” looking at greenery improved performance. This sort of cognitive task is actually very common and very error-prone; think of pharmacists checking over prescriptions before handing them out, or radiologists looking at mammograms. It’s worth noting that a system could be set up to just automatically show you a soothing nature picture at various increments…which actually starts to sound really creepy to me. Originally, “microbreak” was used to refer to those thousands of tiny miscellaneous breaks we take throughout a work day, from stretching to getting up for a drink of water to looking out a window. Carefully engineering the microbreaks to maximize your productivity? It’s like a cognitive version of a time-motion study.
Before we get to that point, far more research is needed. I mean, it should not be remotely surprising that staring at that blank concrete roof did not mentally refresh anyone. But all we’ve studied is nature, by which we mean “plants,” apparently. If someone needs to spend eight hours a day on cognitively demanding tasks, should their microbreaks be the same wildflower meadow over and over, or should there be variety? Should the nature we show them reflect the natural environment they live in, or something more exotic? (I live in Minnesota: will I perform better after gazing at photos of lakes, or photos of mountains?) Would it improve cognitive performance if we piped in natural sound effects like the sound of ocean waves, or rain?
Apparently we do know that natural vistas are more refreshing and restorative than cityscapes (just as nature walks are more restorative than urban walks) but does “nature” mean “trees” exclusively or would a desert landscape work? Or cute animals, do they count as “nature”?
Once upon a time, or so they tell me, people took coffee breaks and cigarette breaks. Maybe someday there will be automated Cat Picture Breaks, where your workstation will go blank and show you a 40-second video of adorable kittens until returning you to your previous task.