Natural scenery may reduce attentional effort when starting mindfulness practice

Mindfulness is largely based on maximizing effortless attention to the present. The amount of effort allocated to attention is known to decrease over time with regular practice, but the initial learning process may actually require a significant contribution of resources. This would at least partially explain the difficulty experienced by many people when first learning mindful practice. Research published in a 2016 issue of Environment and Behavior investigates the role of such an effect, and examines the usefulness of natural scenery as a potential mediating factor.

Conducted by Swedish researchers Freddie Lymeus, Tobias Lundgren and Terry Hartig, the experiment included 51 subjects (14 male) without previous mindful practice experience who were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: practice alone, practice with natural scenery and rest with natural scenery. The practice conditions involved an eight-week mindfulness training course consisting of weekly 90-minute sessions.

Those in the rest group simply relaxed during the same time periods. Participants in the scenery conditions viewed nature images while completing their sessions. The use of these pictures was inspired by existing evidence that links the viewing of natural scenery to the promotion of effortless attention.

Measures of attention, stress, anxiety and other relative variables were obtained before the study started and at two-week intervals for a total of five rounds. No significant differences were observed between groups in pretest measurements. As predicted, performance on attentional tasks in the mindful practice conditions was initially much lower than scores from the resting group, indicating a depletion of attentional resources.

Performance rose to comparable levels after a few weeks of training. The viewing of nature images was found to support a slight improvement in attention in comparison to the practice-only group, though this effect was most apparent in subjects with lower pretest performance scores. No significant changes were observed in non-attentional variables.

This research lends credence to the theory that the initial stages of mindful practice require a large amount of attentional effort that lessens over time. Learning difficult and unfamiliar tasks often necessitates sustained focus, which may explain at least part of the deficit experienced when starting mindful practice. Viewing nature scenes can offset this effect slightly in mindful practice scenarios and the method shows promise as an effective aid in the restoration of attentional processes in general. An increased benefit for people with low initial attention performance scores indicates that the viewing of natural scenery may be most helpful for people with conditions that are associated with attentional impairments.