Botanical Brain Boost

Exploring how surroundings impact unconscious cognitive processing during work and rest.

By: Anya Higashionna

As a student who loves the outdoors, I have always found great joy and comfort in curating house plants for my living spaces. When I left for college I was determined to hand carry all my plants through the airport from my room in California to my dorm in Washington. I believe the effort was worth it as the living greenery in my dorm room has enhanced my space and thus my wellbeing. I love the calming effect of having a piece of nature indoors and the curiosity the different colors and shapes of plants inspire. These feelings spurred me to dig deeper into the world within which I surrounded myself. 

With green on my mind, I wondered if there was a possible scientific explanation connecting my botanical buddies and my health. Turns out, there is! A 2022 research paper, “Characteristics of Eye Movement while Viewing Indoor Plants and Improvements in Occupants’ Cognitive Functions”, from the Department of Architecture at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan researches the cognitive benefits of plants through a series of tests and rest periods in combination with an eye tracking device. While many know plants are beautiful, the researchers wondered: can they help you think better?

So What Happened in This Study?

Imagine you only had four objects to select from to place in your study space before an exam to test your creativity and memory; no object, a real plant, a fake plant, or a row of books. Which one would you choose in order to perform your best on the exam? These conditions were what thirty students from Waseda University were tested under to further dissect the theory of plant improvements on cognitive functions of creativity and memory. They also outfitted participants with an eye tracking device to measure how well the brain was “resting”.

After a general health survey and calibration for the eye tracking devices, participants took a creativity test called the Unusual Uses Tests (UUT). During this task one would be given objects and write down as many unusual uses for each in a given time, requiring the brain to think creatively. This task would consist of a three minute rest period in between a six and twelve minute testing period and would be scored through a uniqueness and fluency score. For example, an object one might be given is a “shoe”. A common idea was using the shoe as a ball, but a less common more unique response that would be scored higher was using the shoe as a boat for a Barbie doll.

Next after another recalibration of the eye tracker, they did a working memory task where they were given sentences written in Japanese with one underlined word. The goal was to recall the words in order as presented for a score of 2 or out of order for a score of 1. There were three six minute tasks periods with two two minute rest periods between each.

What was Found After Analyzing the Data?

The main thinking tasks were creativity and working memory tasks. Surprisingly, they didn’t find many differences in increasing creativity or working memory here! What did they find? Plants may not have helped with thinking, but they seemed to be helpful for resting in between thinking where they had also used eye tracking. The paper’s authors, Dr. Soma Sugano, explains, “Eye-tracking technology offers a unique advantage in that it can measure unconscious visual perception.” Basically, it measures fixations, or periods of staring, and blink rate. If you have low fixation, and higher blink rate, this indicates you are using less brain power and you are “restoring” your attention. Essentially, the eye tracking measured if you were truly resting your brain during the rest breaks.

 “Our study’s novel finding is related to how individuals visually perceive indoor plants during their rest periods while working,” says Dr. Sugano. This is interesting to consider as the results and expectations showed that females would have fewer fixations in case 2 (real plant) than in the remaining cases during the rest period of the UUT task. This measurement of the number of blinks and fixations during the rest periods of each task, “consistently support the understanding that the plants had an attention restoration effect during the rest periods of the RST” (Sugano, 2022, p.10), and UUT for females. 

Soft Fascination on Attention Restoration

“When you care for plants, you feel the joy of connection to another living creature, but you also begin to notice patterns and colors and structure in a way that engages your mind in creative curiosity,” states Katherine Preston, PhD, professor for the plant taxonomy course and associate director for the human biology program at Stanford. An important note made by both Dr. Sugano and Dr. Preston was that while there is further research needed on the cognitive impacts of surrounding plants, physically caring for plants may be a key variable that makes a difference. With the limited scientific evidence, an interesting topic of debate was brought up by Dr. Preston. Dr. Preston brings up an interesting topic of debate that points out that plants most likely don’t have the same effect on people with a surface level understanding about plants and those who consider themselves plant experts may be a result of individual’s “soft fascinations”. Soft fascinations refer to elements in the environment that capture and hold a person’s attention in a gentle, non-demanding manner, such as artworks of calm scenes or being in nature. This can be further explained with Attention Restoration Theory (ART) which describes how modern urban environments can overstimulate and fatigue the mind, but restore it in natural settings with soft fascination.

Transforming your Space and Mind

Despite the fact that this article was written with the purpose of mainly exploring plants, the benefits of attention restoration can be derived from many different objects depending on the person. Different style lamps, calming paintings or patterns, colored walls or lights, or even a picture of your pet can create the same effect. While there is limited scientific evidence on plants specifically improving one’s cognitive abilities, there is a small detail that one can take away from this research if plants are not a suitable relaxing object for them.

We can be quick to put on a youtube or netflix show as background noise and believe it isn’t distracting us, but is it harmful in the long run? Activities that we do or place around us at our desks while we work and rest should not be overlooked, as the scrolling breaks on Tik Tok and Instagram can drain our mental batteries rather than charge them. Similar to how having books in the background can keep the minds of the subjects in the experiment stimulated, busy screens and visuals will not be as good for attention restoration as objects and activities that take lower cognitive effort to view.

Next time you work at your desk at home you can conduct a mini experiment to test your work space and break activities restoration abilities. First, you can perform your usual tasks at your desk then during your break take a moment to look around you and think about your space and the objects around you. Does the abundance of many different objects or a certain object make you anxious, drain your battery, or distract you? Then while you rest, also think about the activities you do and the spaces you surround yourself with. Personally, when studying for big exams I used to take breaks by just going on my phone. However, one day I saw my friend coloring during our pomodoro break and was inspired by her choice to color and made me reflect. I joined in on the coloring and found myself being able to recharge much faster and relax more. Another thing that I had noticed was that It no longer took me 30 minutes on my phone to feel ready to start up again. It was not only rewarding seeing how much we have colored in as time went on, but seeing the page get colored in also showed us how long we have studied! Just like how plants are not for everyone, coloring might not be for everyone either. Maybe enjoying a good episode works best for you, going on a walk, attending to your plants, or even organizing your space.

However, If you are interested in the star of this experiment, plants, and in college, Dr. Preston recommends,  “Although they are trendy, succulents are not as easy to keep in a dorm room as some people would tell you. Most succulents need the right kind of light and water, and many species are easily broken. Instead, I would try a classic houseplant. One that is very easy to care for is Dracaena Trifasciata, sometimes called snake plant. One of my very favorite plants is the peace lily, or Spathiphyllum. It can grow in very low light and will tolerate a wide range of water conditions. Every once in a while it makes flowering spikes with lovely white sails behind them. When yours gets big, you can divide it and share with friends”. In the end, your workspace should be tailored to your unique needs and preferences. If caring for plants isn’t feasible or of interest to you, there are countless other elements that can contribute to transforming your space into the personal paradise you desire.

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