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Houseplants Make You Smarter

Recent research suggests that the mere presence of plants can boost your attention span
Houseplants make you Smarter



chechele, via iStockphoto

You are probably aware that eating plants is good for you. However, what you may not know is that plants can provide benefits even if your taste buds run for cover at the first mention of spinach. New research is beginning to show that just having plants in your workspace may improve how you think.

In a study to be published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, researchers show that the mere presence of plants in an office setting boosts one’s ability to maintain attention.

As humans spend more of their lives in front of screens, scientists have devoted more attention to the effects these artificial environments have on the mind. Sometimes, this new study suggests, it may be possible to reap benefits with simple changes in decorating strategy.

These findings build on a body of research based on Attention Restoration Theory. According to this theory, the reason why you can stare at spreadsheets for only so long before wanting to toss your computer monitor through the window is that everyone has a limited capacity for this kind of work. This limited capacity system makes use of “directed attention” which is effortful, controlled voluntarily, and diminishes with use.

You can contrast this with the kind of attention that is engaged when you are out walking in a park. Your attention is drawn first to that leaf, then to another. The shadow of a bird streaking across the green grass pulls your eyes along… until a flash of color from flowers by the path grabs your focus. This second kind of attention, called undirected attention, is effortless, automatically oriented to interesting features of our surroundings, and, according to the theory, allows the directed attention system to rest and rejuvenate itself.

Scientists have shown that exposure to naturalistic environments, such as those with much foliage, has regenerative effects for directed attention. However, much of the research in this area has been done with natural scenes on a larger scale – for example, by having participants walk through a park or look at pictures of dense plant life.

Research on whether one can still attain the regenerative advantages by simply having a few plants in your workplace has led to mixed results. For example, in one study, participants in a college computer lab with plants showed increased productivity. However, another study failed to find any benefits associated with plants. Still others have found plant-associated benefits only for men, or only for women.

The authors of the present study suggest that these inconsistencies can result from the use of different tools between labs. Just as your doctor measures your health in a number of ways – from taking your blood pressure, to determining your body-fat percentage – so too do psychologists have a number of ways to measure attention. Each measurement tool, depending on how exactly it works and which aspect of attention it measures, may lead to a different result.

For this experiment, the authors decided to use a Reading Span Task, which involves reading a series of sentences aloud and remembering the last word in each sentence. Similar to the way you might need to remember some information from a spreadsheet before entering it into a word processing document, this task requires that you fluidly switch between attention demanding tasks: from reading and memorizing at one moment, to writing and recalling at the next. The authors chose this particular measure because the ability to remember and recall information while switching between tasks taps into the “central executive processes” which are thought to be a critical component for directed attention.

To test their hypothesis that plants in an office setting would lead to benefits, the authors placed some participants in an office with four plants placed around a desk, and others in the same room without plants. All the participants first took a Reading Span Task to establish a baseline measure of attention capacity, then a proof-reading task, followed by another Reading Span Task to establish any change in their attention capacity.

Results of the experiment showed that the participants working in the room with plants improved their performance from the first to the second Reading Span Task, while those in the room without plants did not.

It does seem apparent that plants lead to real cognitive benefits, but researchers must still clear up some questions. For example, what is the nature of the relationship between the plants, and the breaks which lead to rejuvenation of directed attention? Do the plants cause people to rest their directed attention system more frequently? Or perhaps the plants qualitatively change the resting period, making the breaks more effective? Regardless, it seems clear that the presence of plants in the workspace led to direct benefits for mental functioning. So, even if you have never been one to make your mom happy by eating your veggies, it seems that you can still take advantage of the beneficial effects of leafy greens. Just put some around your desk, and tackle those spreadsheets with a refreshed mind.

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