Meetings and Your Brain: How Nature Gives Your Attention a Break

Many newly constructed and renovated convention centers and hotels leverage nature’s benefits, from boosting our mood to helping us think and collaborate better, and improving our focus and creativity.

Author: Barbara Palmer       

Second Home Hollywood

A 50,000-square-foot garden — with 6,500 trees and plants — defines the Los Angeles co-working and meeting space called Second Home. (Iwan Baan photos)

Editor’s note: Renowned anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall has said of the climate crisis, “What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” With that in mind, we are dedicating the November/December edition of Convene fully — our first single-topic issue — to the climate crisis, and what the business events industry is doing to address this global challenge. Find stories from the Climate Issue here, and read our cover story, “A ‘Watershed Moment’ for Events — and the World.”

Biophilia is a nearly 60-year-old term that describes the hypothesis that humans have an intrinsic tendency to connect with nature — and when it comes to applying it to gatherings, we’ve come a long way from the days when meeting organizers would order a pair of potted plants to flank speakers on a stage and call it a day.

Many newly constructed and renovated convention centers and hotels leverage nature’s benefits, featuring greenery-covered living walls, natural materials such as wood and stone, and meeting rooms flooded with natural light. When the London-based company Second Home opened a co-working and meeting space in Los Angeles, it established a 50,000-square-foot garden — with 6,500 trees and plants — in what was once a parking lot.

And for good reason: The evidence that links human exposure to nature and wellbeing is substantial and growing. For example, people who can look out a window while they work sleep an average of 46 minutes more each night than those who work in windowless offices. Another study found that people who took daily walks in a forest had significantly lower heart rates, better moods, and less anxiety than those who walked daily in urban settings. And in the era of COVID-19, access to clean, fresh air is not a nice-to-have, but imperative for health and safety.

Exposure to nature also has been linked to how well we think and collaborate, and with boosting focus and creativity. According to research published in Psychological Science, looking at nature actually can help us recover from demands on our attention. Urban environments, filled with things like traffic noise and advertising, drain us. On the other hand, the attention we pay to nature — as described by attention restoration theory (ART) — is effortless and rejuvenates us.

The work of two pioneers in the development of ART, environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, help explain why including natural elements like sunlight and access to greenery in meeting environments can be particularly effective. Humans work best in environments high in “fascination,” the Kaplans wrote, differentiating between “hard” and “soft” fascination. “Hard” fascination is invoked by highly stimulating activities — in a meeting environment, that could be a keynote or highly engaged conversation. “Soft” fascination is the kind of effortless, restorative attention you might expend when listening to sound of water in a fountain or letting your eyes fall on a green wall or a shaft of sunlight. In addition to giving your attention a rest, it leaves space for reflection. Experiences that include both “hard” and “soft” fascination can help keep brains in balance — something that even the simple act of including a pair of potted plants on a stage could encourage.

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.

Second Home Hollywood aerial

The Los Angeles location of London-based Second Home was created in what was once a parking lot.

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