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Natural environments are often preferred over urban environments, and are also known to be beneficial to cognition, mood, and overall well-being. The Attention Restoration Theory suggests that nature is beneficial because it allows the executive attention systems to rest and restore. In this study, we compared improvement on attention tasks after participants were exposed to images of nature (forests, beaches, and deserts) or to images of an urban environment (cities). Each participant (N = 103) viewed 78 images from one of the scene categories while their eye movements were tracked. After viewing each image, participants rated how much they enjoyed looking at that image on a 5-point Likert scale. Before and after the image-viewing period, participants completed a series of attentionally-demanding tasks (Digit Span Task, Sustained Attention to Response Task, and the Attention Network Task). We found that aesthetic ratings differed by category, such that cities were liked less than beaches and forests, but not deserts. However, we did not find category differences in performance improvement on the attention tasks, failing to replicate earlier studies that showed higher cognitive improvements after exposure to nature vs. urban images. Instead, we found that the relationship between visual exploration and aesthetic pleasure on an image-by-image basis negatively predicted working memory performance improvement (F(1,94) = 5.8, p = 0.02). In other words, if an individual had a high correlation between how much they explored a scene and how much they liked it, they also had a lower improvement on the Digit Span Task after the image exposure phase. Although these results seem counterintuitive, they imply that a greater engagement with the environment has a less restorative effect on cognition. This is still in line with the Attention Restoration Theory, although suggests the need for nuance when studying when and how nature is restorative.
Acknowledgements: Marie Sklodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship