Environmental factors in attention
We are familiar with the idea that other people can affect our mental condition.
And we know that physical interaction with the environment can cause physical
But how can noise or driving or watching TV give you mental fatigue? And
even more mysterious, how can watching the surf, having a view of trees
out your window, or playing with a kitten, how can these relieve mental
fatigue in your head?
For the answers we go to a new kind of psychology that is developing rapidly,
the field of Environmental Psychology.
Pioneered by Stephen and Rachel
Kaplan, it deals with how environmental factors, sometimes factors that
are almost unnoticeable, affect our minds.
In a way, Environmental Psychology was born of necessity in the modern
has always been with us. People have always gotten sick and injured, and
we have tried to help.
and social psychology in some form has been around to a lesser but
degree—we have always had counselors
and people who were interested in understanding groups.
But it was not until we began spending the majority of our time in artificial,
constructed environments that Environmental Psychology really started
to matter. Remember, we had a long long looooong time to get used to
in the woods or savannahs. Our brains and sensory systems are really
built for that. And then we had millennia to get used to living in villages.
small cities have been around for a few thousand years old, and people
have adapted, somewhat, to them.
But modern megalopolises are very new, providing us with skyscrapers
and surrounding suburbs, as well as indoor features, which contain many
elements to which we are not adapted.
Some of these show up in funny ways. Many of us know of certain subdivisions
where we repeatedly get turned around or lost in the winding streets.
We may have had trouble finding a particular office or apartment in a
if we forget the room number. And on a micro-environmental level, many
of us have had trouble accomplishing what we intended with a VCR or household
When the consequences increase, the issues can be less amusing.
Long, straight, featureless freeways can put people into a highway trance,
put them to sleep. People with memory problems can get thoroughly
lost in the uniform corridors of a hospital or nursing home. Badly designed
ballots can mean that an unwanted candidate wins. Badly designed
cockpits can actually increase the incidence of airline crashes.
When we consider that the physical environment, both natural and built,
is everywhere, all the time, and is what we constantly sense and interact
with on a whole variety of levels, in all our senses, we begin to see
how it could have a significant impact on our thoughts and emotions.
It can be especially tricky when environmental effects are small and
subtle and we often don’t notice them directly. Instead, we may
just feel better in certain places or situations, or worse in others.
it as a mood, or think that we are sick, or that some “personality
trait” that is making us feel a certain way—until we go someplace
else and consistently feel or perform quite differently. Often, something
goes wrong and continues to go wrong before we start testing to find
is. Extreme cases are sometimes needed to make things clear.
The things you will see here are some examples worked out after
careful study by researchers in Environmental Psychology.
The pathways are generally easy to understand:
• An environmental event occurs, such a noise.
• It becomes an input via our sensory receptors, such as the nerves in
• Various parts of our nervous system and brain convert and process this
• Which then becomes a particular psychological effect.
sensory impact can be obvious—when we are in the vicinity
of a loud irritating sound, it seems to go right into our brain and block
out everything else. But there can be much more subtle effects, and
it is these which are the object of much current study.
the details that are tricky--and fascinating.
effect of vitamins and toxins on our bodies, even small environmental
effects can have mental big impacts
Also, our brains are never passive. Even seeing a simple image takes
we know from people who have been born blind, have had the damage
repaired, then still need to learn how to see. Different kinds of cells
brains handle things like straight lines, movement, colors. So the
information has to be funneled to the proper cells. Our simplest sensory
is quite an accomplishment.
After the input is processed on a basic level, it goes to our centers
specialized for making associations, predictions, expectations, and
fairly simple mental events that seem to happen almost instantly
take a lot of work. It is an unimaginably complex and marvelous system.
cognition is integrated with the emotion circuits in our heads, and
with motor circuits, so we can move in response to a stimulus—and
decide when not to move.
Fortunately, we are not stuck in just a one-way stimulus-response.
We have a lot of gray-matter that intervenes between a stimulus and
decide to do about it.
Our thoughts can even feed back to the basic sensory level—for
example, we are more likely to see something when we are looking
for it, as anyone
who has eagerly watched for something can tell you.
We can also get false-positives. We generally believe what we see—but
sometimes we see what we believe—even when it isn’t there!
One of the most amazing parts of our brain machinery helps us deal
with all this, with the “blooming buzzing confusion “ of the world,
as William James said. This is our attention system. Some things automatically
grab our attention—noise, blood, somebody cute. This important—it
is a quick way for us to know what matters and what we can ignore.
However, sometimes we have to do things that are not fascinating
at all, such as cleaning the sink or doing certain homework. In order
fascinating things long enough to get something else done, we have
our Directed Attention system, which we talk so much about here.
This allows us to compare, plan, consider, or focus on one aspect
of the situation, such as figuring out how to get a date with that
Or it lets us focus on something completely different, such as writing
the script for a comedy program. It can help us avoid deception—or
create it. It gives us the space to imagine and to plan.
Directed Attention can fatigue even faster than usual when we have to
work especially hard to decipher the world, to interact the right way,
have to refrain from very compelling or automatic actions.
Some things interfere with mental processing so much that they almost
always cause Attention Fatigue. These include:
and unpredictable noise
•too much uncertainly
requiring an unusual degree of focus
an unusual amount of restraint
that are confusing
wear us down fast.
will simply doing too much. We just drive the machinery into
On the other
side of the circuit, we will
if the processing machinery is in trouble:
our mental machinery is damaged by illness
we do not get enough sleep, which is necessary
to keep attention functioning.
and constant interaction with the environment makes our lives interesting,
but takes enormous work. And scientists are just beginning to explore
this intriguing and essential area.
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Belmont, CA: Duxbury. (Republished by Ann Arbor, MI: Ulrich's, 1982.)
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Analysis).(Brief Article): An article from: Human Ecology,
Author: , Cornell University, Human Ecology,
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Stark, M. A. (2003). Restoring
Attention in Pregnancy:The Natural Environment, Clinical
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