Now more than ever people are looking for ways to stay focused and energized as they work from home or socially-distanced at the office. While maintaining a work-life balance has a whole new set of challenges these days, there is a vast and growing body of research that shows that simply having plants in a work setting improves one’s ability to concentrate.
Years of scientifically-backed research demonstrates the psychological and physiological benefits of having indoor plants around. One study by the University of Exeter found that when plants were placed in a previously barren office environment, employee creativity and productivity rose by 45% and 38%, respectively. An hour of interacting with plants is also shown to increase memory retention by up to 20%. The act of handling potting soil containing microbes dubbed “outdoorphins” which serve as a natural antidepressant, can reduce daily stress and anxiety. Researchers at Texas A&M University have compiled evidence that people who surround themselves with plant life experience a wide range of cognitive and mental health benefits, including enhanced concentration and memory, stress reduction, increased energy levels, and lead to overall more positive moods and perceived quality of life.
A new 2020 study out of Japan showed that workers who took a three-minute break whenever they felt fatigued to water and gaze at a desk plant experienced reduced anxiety levels at the end of the four week trial period. About 27% of participants had also significantly lowered their pulse rate (a strong indicator of the body’s stress response) by the end of the four weeks.
We like to believe that staying focused is a sheer matter of willpower and discipline, but our brains only have limited capacity for “directed attention,” the form of high-effort and controlled attention we give to activities like preparing for a presentation or solving complex mathematical equations. Then there is the form of “undirected attention” that engages in scenarios such as taking a lunchtime walk in the park where you happen to notice a beautiful flower or the colorful bird perched in a nearby tree. This second type of attention requires less cognitive energy, and is automatically drawn to interesting elements in our environment. According to attention researchers, activating undirected attention actually allows the directed attention system in our brains to rest and rejuvenate without any conscious effort.
These findings are part of a larger body of research on Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which asserts that humans are able to concentrate better after spending time in nature⎼or even just from having nature nearby in the form of indoor plants. The theory was developed by Stephan and Rachel Kaplan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as society underwent rapid technological advancement and the ubiquity of computer-based work in the office environment.
The idea that nature restores us is a major focus of environmental psychology: a field that explores the dynamic connections between humans and their surroundings. In an increasingly digital world, environmental psychologists are studying ways to implement more restoration into our daily lives. Experts have found that many forms of experiencing and viewing nature can restore our attention, energy, and psychological well being. With over 20 years of research, ART hypothesizes that the presence of nature has the ability to renew our attention, even after feats of intense mental exertion, such as working long days on end to meet an important deadline.
Beyond the cognitive benefits listed above, certain plants can remove up to 87% of common airborne toxins and indoor pollutants, such as formaldehyde, benzene, and acetone. These toxins often linger in older office buildings, and their presence can take both a physical and mental toll, as research shows that air pollution is linked to poor mental health. Not only are plants able to make us happier and more focused, they also contribute to healthier indoor air quality.
In a time when we have few answers on what the future of work looks like, it’s important to remember that there are small steps we can take to improve our ability to focus, reduce stress, and support overall cognitive and physiological well being. Bringing nature indoors in the form of plants is one of the most effective ways to do so.