Saturday, December 11, 2010

Restoration: Attention

I picked up the telephone: “Hello?”

“I’m dying.” Those were the first words out of her mouth.

My head scrambled for a thought - fast! Mostly thinking, ‘how do I respond to that?!’

I paused, took a breath and just went for it: “No, you’re not,” I answered without skipping a beat. “You’re talking to me on the phone right now.”

She stopped for a moment. I don’t think she had quite expected that response. The quiet hung in the air, finally interrupted by her reasonably dejected voice: “Well, they gave me a death sentence. They said there’s nothing more they can do for me and I’m gonna die.” It was her turn to let the air hang heavy as she waited for an answer to that.

I decided to go out recklessly on a limb: “Well, we all are aren’t we?” She was listening closely now, so I took the advantage and continued: “Some sooner than others - and nobody really knows when somebody else is going to die, do they? They don’t know that. They’re just saying they’re out of tricks in their bag for you - but you’re not dying - not this second. You’re talking to me on the phone right now.”


“Where are you right now in your home?” I asked.

“Sitting in a chair.”

“Where? What do you see in front of you?”

“The window.”

“What do you see outside the window?”

“The big pine tree.”

“Anything else?”

“There’s a cardinal in the tree.”

“Good. Watch it!”

Silence. This time the silence didn’t hang heavily, but was a deep, profound kind of silence one is rarely privileged to hear: the deep silence shared with another.

After a solid moment of silence I pushed on, “You’re not dying. You’re alive - you’re talking to me on the phone, and you’re looking out the window and looking at the pine tree with the cardinal in it. How big is that tree? Tell me about it.”

And she did, describing its height and breadth - how it filled the front yard; its deep green needles and the bright red bird - all cast against the steel-grey, winter sky of northern Michigan.

Over time we had many more conversations where she sat in front of that window and described all of the life she saw before her. She described it in detail throughout the seasons: the birds at the feeder - the cardinals and chickadees of winter, the bluebirds in the summer - the oasis that it became to both herself and the birds - her ‘sitting spot’; her zen cushion of meditation. She never spoke to me again that she was dying - not that she didn't think about it, I'm sure. But she chose to bring all her worries, fears and burdens to that tree - and they were heavy and many. That tiny spot of nature helped her to carry them and it also carried her - not dying, but living clear through to her final day.


Nature heals. Whether looking out at the vista from the mountaintop, the horizon from the shore, or the view of the bird feeder outside the kitchen window, our senses take in the sights, smells and sounds of nature, helping our minds balance out in the most basic and primal of ways. We might find it in sailing the sea, but we might as easily find it staring into the aquarium in a doctor’s office. Nature heals, calms, centers and restores.


It’s in the basic wiring.

We’re only beginning to tap into the mysteries of our brains, how they function and why sometimes they don’t. Research by University of Michigan psychologist Stephen Kaplan, has led to what he calls the “Attention Restoration Theory.” This study examines how time spent in nature in relaxed attention has a restorative quality for our minds. A simple enough idea - common sense, really. Easy and within reach.

The theory is based upon the observation that the human brain has evolved through thousands of generations spontaneous response to the natural environment. According to Kaplan’s research, our species has developed the mental wiring to have a natural attraction to green, to trees, flowers and plants, water and wildlife. When we pay attention to nature we use a different, more relaxed, involuntary kind of attention. It requires no effort - which for some can bring its own kind of challenge. But for a moment, if we can allow it, our mind can relax, offering us the overall benefits of rested attention, mental clarity and focus.

Kaplan, in his ‘Attention Restoration Theory’, lists four components in enlisting nature’s help to restore inattentive and poor quality concentration:

1) Being away from your everyday environment -“Away” could be as simple as the backyard garden or the park at the corner. The idea being that interacting with nature in any form helps one to move away from ‘tired brain’. Tired brain zaps us, robbing us of our ability to attend.

2) Fascination - What engages us requires no mental effort. When we are fascinated, watching the colors of the sunset, the flock of geese heading south, or listening to the pounding of the waves, we engage with an easy, involuntary attention. It takes little effort to ‘look’. We’re drawn in by the details. Remember, it's been said: ‘God is in the details.’

3) Extent or Scope - So you’re ‘away’ from the everyday, and fascinated by what you behold, touch, hear, smell or taste, but can your remain there? Will your attention remain without becoming bored or restless? If you're satisfied and able to ‘let down’, i.e. safe and comfortable, involuntary attention comes to the fore; directed attention becomes unnecessary. Now there’s sufficient ‘scope or extent’; attention span increases.

4) Compatibility - “Different strokes for different folks.” Interact with the natural environment in a way that is compatible for the individual. Fish, hike, garden, smell the flowers, play with the dog, sit by the river, pet the cat, birdwatch, collect rocks, watch the clouds, walk in the open air, feel the wind as you ride a bike --- Find your way. YOUR way.

When life throws us the unexpected curve ball - the job loss; health crisis; the loss of a loved one through divorce, death or an empty nest - the ordinary bumps and bruises of life - they take their toll, leaving us stressed and potentially eroded. We become more forgetful and challenged in clear thinking. Our emotions get the better of us and we feel like an exposed, raw nerve ending dangling out there being stepped upon, irritated by everything. Our mental quadrant governs it all -- not only our clear cognitive functioning, but also our emotional and coping capabilities.

The details of the unexpected curve ball don’t matter much; our responses do, however, - how we find our way back to repair and restoration - how we reboot ourselves. We all need to reboot from time to time; a good place to begin is by ‘Restoring Attention’ through nature.


“Don’t think: Look!” - Ludwig Wittgenstein



For further reading, ask your local public library for: "Your Brain After Chemo: A Practical Guide to Lifting the Fog and Getting Back Your Focus" by Dan Silverman & Idelle Davidson