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Journal of Cognitive Psychology

For a Special Issue on

Environment and Cognition: A Tetrahedral Model for Studies Investigating Nature’s Influence on Attention

Abstract deadline
01 June 2024

Manuscript deadline
15 October 2024

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Special Issue Editor(s)

Jason M. Watson, University of Colorado Denver, Denver, CO United States
[email protected]

Alexandre Marois, École de Psychologie, Université Laval, Québec, QC, Canada; School of Psychology and Humanities, Preston, LA, United Kingdom
[email protected]

Andrew M. Szolosi, Department of Recreation, Sport Pedagogy, and Consumer Sciences, Ohio University, Athens, OH, United States
[email protected]

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Environment and Cognition: A Tetrahedral Model for Studies Investigating Nature’s Influence on Attention

The capacity to direct attention toward potentially relevant information plays a significant and critical role in many daily activities (Kaplan & Berman, 2010). Indeed, directed attention enables one to select a relevant stimulus for further information processing, even actively ignoring potential competing sources of information that may be distracting to one’s current task goals (e.g., focusing your attention on reading this Special Issue proposal/call for papers while avoiding task-irrelevant thoughts such as your weekend plans).   After long periods of concentration, however, directing attention can become cognitively challenging. Many studies have shown that interacting with nature may help overcome this fatigue, yielding dual beneficial effects for one’s mental health, both reducing stress (Ulrich, 1983) and improving many cognitive functions, especially one’s capacity to direct attention (Schertz & Berman, 2019).   Nature’s positive impact on cognition has been explained by Attention Restoration Theory (Kaplan, 1995, 2001).   According to this theory, one’s directed attention can be replenished by nature when the environment elicits soft fascination, a relatively effortless capturing of attention by certain contents (e.g., trails, waterfalls) and cognitive processes (e.g., mystery, aesthetic preference) that tend to capture a person’s interest and promote active exploration.   Consistent with this idea, benefits of nature have been observed on higher-level cognitive functions including working memory, flexibility, and the control of attention (see Stevenson et al., 2018).

The present Special Issue looks to organize and synthesize ongoing empirical work with respect to nature’s influence on attention that will be drawn from the allied fields of environmental and cognitive psychology.   To do so, empirical work from both disciplines will coalesce using a framework originally developed by Jenkins (1979) within cognitive psychology to organize the growing body of scientific research on memory.   Guided by the Jenkins’ tetrahedral model, ongoing research on nature’s influence on cognition can be organized by its four vertices:  materials, outcomes, participants, and context.  Each vertex will be briefly illustrated, but not fully represented, by a few sample research questions below:

Materials: Several methods have been used to investigate the impact of nature on attention and mood, including actual immersion in nature or urban environments (Atchley et al., 2012; Hopman et al., 2020; LoTemplio et al., 2020; Scott et al., 2023) as well as viewing images of these settings (Berman et al., 2008; Berto, 2005; Browning et al., 2021).  With respect to these stimuli, what is the connection, if any, from more immersive studies in nature/urban settings versus relying on virtual reality or sets of nature/urban images?   Though immersive studies may be more realistic and engaging, can additional experimental control be gained by considering visual (Kardan et al., 2015) or other potentially restorative properties of the images themselves, even across different types of nature (Marois et al., 2021; Schertz & Berman, 2019; Szolosi et al., 2014)?   As complementary approaches, both more realistic, immersive and more controlled, laboratory studies may be necessary to more thoroughly and completely investigate the empirical space and the potential impact of environment on cognition.

Outcomes: Attention is plural and non-monolithic, so which aspects of attention are most likely to be impacted by interacting with nature (Berman et al., 2008; Ohly et al., 2016; Stevenson et al., 2018)?   More specifically, is it possible to experimentally demonstrate a dissociation such that nature is more likely to benefit some measures of attention than others?  Moreover, to what extent are these benefits a byproduct of, secondary to, or mediated by reductions in stress (Schertz & Berman, 2019; Ulrich, 1983), improved mood, or changes in arousal following interaction with nature?   Do nature versus urban manipulations separate on other outcomes?   Furthermore, to foreshadow the next point on the pyramid (Jenkins, 1979), do individual differences in mood, stress, or arousal moderate nature’s influence on attention?

Participants: Are there individual differences in the influence of nature on attention?   For example, are some participants - such as older adults, children, or children with attention deficit disorder - more likely than others to benefit from interacting with nature due to preexisting group differences in attention (Kuo et al., 2019; Louv, 2008; Watson et al., 2011)? Furthermore, are these cognitive benefits related to and possibly moderated by an individual’s compatibility with (Kaplan, 1995) or their self-reported connectedness to nature (see Coughlan et al., 2022; Martin & Czellar, 2016; Setti et al., 2022)?   There are likely a wide range of individual differences that may impact the extent to which nature improves mood, attention, or other outcomes (particularly in cases where individuals may prefer urban over nature settings).  For instance, some individuals may be predisposed to utilize particular forms of attentional control to resolve conflict or interference, such as proactive, goal-maintenance versus reactive, just-in-time mechanisms (Braver, 2012).  If interacting with nature impacts some varieties of attentional control more than others, by extension, some individuals may be more susceptible to the influence of environment on cognition.  Of course, this echoes an earlier point on the pyramid with respect to outcomes and the plurality of attention.  Notably, this overlap between the four methodological points of the tetrahedral framework (Jenkins, 1979) demonstrates the importance of (and opportunity in) researchers considering statistical interactions to more fully address the complex relationship between nature and cognition.

Context:  Do orienting instructions or other manipulations while encoding scenes (Duvall, 2011; Lin et al., 2014) such as the presentation duration of stimulus materials (Szolosi et al., 2014), influence the perception of nature and urban settings?   For instance, it may be important to consider additional normative work on these settings above and beyond indices of fascination (Hartig et al., 1996) and mood (Watson et al., 1988) and their potential relationship to attention restoration.   Moreover, from an applied perspective, it may be fruitful to consider the impact of nature on learning in the classroom (Kuo et al., 2019), as well as how environmental greenspace such as parks or trails can be more optimally designed (Kuo et al., 2023).   More generally, in the spirit of Jenkins’ (1979) original “Problem Pyramid,” this vertex ultimately refers to the acquisition conditions provided by experimenters (Roediger, 2008).  Thus, with respect to context, the emphasis is more on understanding direct impacts of nature and urban settings (including neurological or psychophysiological indices while interacting with these environments), rather than possible, downstream, indirect benefits on later measures of attention (where the latter may be mediated, at least in part, by the former).   Such studies may shed theoretical light on the notion that attention may need to be optimally engaged, rather than rest, to be effectively restored (see Joye & DeWitte, 2018; Marois et al, 2021; Szolosi et al., 2014).   Indeed, a growing number of recent studies suggest greater involvement of attentional networks when emphasizing neural/psychophysiological responses to nature as a stimulus, rather than focusing on restoration outcomes in response to nature per se (see Hopman et al., 2020; LoTemplio et al., 2020; Marois et al., 2021; Scott et al., 2020).  Moving forward, researchers interested in the impact of environment on cognition may find it useful to augment more traditional behavioural measures of affect and attention to include a wider range of acquisition conditions and contexts such as EEG/ERP (Hopman et al., 2020; LoTemplio et al., 2020), heart rate/heart rate variability (Scott et al., 2020), eye tracking (Marois et al., 2021), and blood pressure (Hartig et al., 2003).   Such a comprehensive, multimodal approach may prove essential to develop more integrated models of how human-nature interaction contributes to overall mental and physical health (Jimenez et al., 2021; Scott et al., 2021).

Therefore, in the proposed Special Issue, rather than applying Jenkins’ (1979) tetrahedral model to the design, organization, and synthesis of memory experiments, per se, we will instead focus on these same four methodological points for cognitive and environmental researchers to remember when they are considering the influence of nature on attention.

Submission Instructions

Article Proposals

Proposals are welcome for Full (Regular) Articles, Brief Articles, and Reviews in any domain related to the influence of environment, especially nature and urban settings, on cognition.

Abstracts of proposals for articles are limited to 300 words. The deadline for abstract proposals is June 1st, 2024. In their proposal, to be considered responsive to this Special Issue on environment and cognition, authors are strongly encouraged to explicitly indicate which one (or more) of the four methodological points from the tetrahedral model (Jenkins, 1979) – materials, outcomes, participants, or context – their submission is intended to address.

Please send these abstract proposals directly to Jason Watson ([email protected]), Alexandre Marois ([email protected]), and Andrew Szolosi ([email protected]).

Estimated Timeline for Special Issue

Call for abstract proposals open from March 1st, 2024 to June 1st, 2024.

Acceptance of proposals begins July 15th, 2024.

Invited submissions based on proposals due by October 15th, 2024.

Review process from October 20th, 2024 to April 15th, 2025.

Anticipated publication date September, 2025.

Intended Audience

This Special Issue will be relevant to those who are interested in the influence of nature and urban environments on cognition, broadly defined, including but not limited to more traditional, behavioural measures of affect and attention as well as other comparatively novel techniques such as brain imaging, EEG/ERP, eye tracking, or other psychophysiological measures.   The Special Issue will also be relevant to applied researchers who are interested in the impact of nature on education and learning in the classroom and nature-based environmental design.

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