What's the best way to take a study break?

ResearchBlogging.orgGreta and I did our undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago, or as a commonly-sold T-shirt on campus put it, "where fun goes to die." To say that Chicago didn't emphasize academics over a social life is to deny that people literally lived in the library (a full-scale campsite was found behind one of the stairwells in the stacks; students had been living there for months). It's not that the administration didn't try to encourage its students to socialize. The library did close at 10 p.m. on Friday nights. There was not one but two film societies, so often students had to choose between, say, the Hitchcock fest at one theater and the Kurosawa marathon at the other.

Still, studying was the primary focus of campus life. There may have been five fraternities, but there were 30 coffee shops on campus. We didn't have "parties," we had "study breaks." But one thing we never managed to do while we were there was figure out what the most effective study break might be. When you're studying during nearly every free moment, what's the best way to clear up your mind and refocus yourself for the next round of studying?

One old idea that has re-emerged recently is called "attention restoration theory", or ART. William James actually discussed a similar concept in his 1892 psychology textbook. The idea that taking a walk in the woods can help you refocus your thoughts is at least as old as Immanuel Kant, and probably older. But how exactly does interacting with nature help focus attention? ART says that the natural world engages your attention in a bottom-up fashion, by features of the environment (e.g. a sunset, a beautiful tree). The artificial world demands active attention, to avoid getting hit by cars or to follow street signs. Since intellectual activities like studying or writing also demand the same kind of attention, taking a break in the artificial world doesn't really function like a rest.

Marc Berman, John Jonides, and Stephen Kaplan wanted to see if they could measure the effect of ART. They paid 38 student volunteers to do a backwards digit-span task. The volunteers were given sequences of 3 to 9 numeric digits and had to repeat them in reverse, so if the experimenter said "6-1-9" then the student would say "9-1-6". After 14 tests (two of each length), the students took an hour-long walk either through an arboretum, or through downtown Ann Arbor. Then the digit-span test was repeated. Did a walk through nature improve the digit-span score? Here are the results:


While everyone's scores improved a little bit after taking a walk, only the improvement in the nature-walkers' scores rose to significance, and the change in the nature-walkers' scores was significantly more than the change in the city-walkers scores. In the end, each student did both a nature walk and a city walk, and everyone's average was better after the nature walk than the urban walk.

In a second experiment, students did both a backwards digit-span and a second, visual attention task. Instead of going for a walk between tests, they viewed pictures of natural scenes or urban scenes. Once again, scores improved significantly more on the digit-span task after viewing natural scenes compared to urban scenes. On the visual attention task, the students were only better at the task in certain cases. For very simple tasks with few distractors, there was no difference between the students seeing natural or urban scenes. But for more complex tasks requiring more focused attention, again the students who had seen the natural scenes did better.

So what does this mean for the University of Chicago's study breaks? Chicago is a very urban environment, and while the campus is attractive, there aren't many places you can go without seeing tall buildings. In most cases, your view out the window is another building, not a tree or a park. Furthermore, the weather is only appealing enough to go outside for about 3 months out of the academic year; the rest of the time it's an Arctic wasteland.

Gary Felsten wanted to know what the best location for student study breaks might be, and so he asked them. He took pictures of several lounge areas on an urban and a rural campus. Some of the lounges had windows overlooking urban scenes or other buildings, while some looked out on open, parklike areas. Some had no windows at all. For some of the windowless lounges, he photoshopped murals of natural scenes onto their empty walls, like this:


Then he had over 200 students rate the lounges for various qualities thought by the ART to be "restorative": A sense of "being away," "fascination," and comfort and ease. The students actually rated the lounges with murals as being more restorative than those with window views of nature, although all the nature views, whether real or artificial, were seen as more restorative than views of urban scenes. It might be that something as simple as a mural could contribute to an effective study break (though it's unclear whether the restorative properties of a lounge would be as effective if it were packed with noisy students).

From Immanuel Kant to Henry David Thoreau to William James, there's a long tradition of scholars taking long walks in nature to refocus their thoughts. Now there's research suggesting exactly how this process might work. Of course, another way to improve your focus on studying is to date someone who spends a lot of time in the library. Worked for me!

Berman, M., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature Psychological Science, 19 (12), 1207-1212 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02225.x

Felsten, G. (2009). Where to take a study break on the college campus: An attention restoration theory perspective Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29 (1), 160-167 DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2008.11.006

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Hey! Does this mean that geology field trips should double as study breaks?

Also, studying should be more fun in Durango. Just saying.

Oh, we certainly had plenty of parties first year. I spent my whole first year partying. Of course, our parties were Honors Calculus parties....it just made problem sets slightly less aversive if we called our group study time a party.

I've been reading your blog for awhile now, but didn't realize you were a UofC grad.

Interesting post. I think many people living in urban areas have become very detached from nature. It's interesting to consider that this could have a significant effect on focus and cognition. I remember seeing a similar study a while back testing this same hypothesis, but with elementary school aged children.

Mary H. (AB 2008)

Interesting. When I take a break from writing, I look out of my window and see the roofs of houses and the trees that tower over them. I wonder how that would rate.

Reccently, I was thinking of studying in park sitting on grass beside a tree.Idea was not bad. :)

Interesting post.
So, studying in the woods would mean you could presumably study indefinitely, as you'd have a mini-break each time you looked up? I actually study better this way, because I don't have to worry about anyone knocking at the door, calling on the phone, etc.
I'd think this "reset" quality should work with anything that rings your emotional bell, whether it's scenes of nature or Nascar.

Bottom-up Attention

In regards to "engages your attention in a
bottom-up fashion", the book "Rapt" by Winifred
Gallagher (which by the way is an excellent book)
has this to say on bottom-up:

"This common expression captures the essence of one
of the two basic ways of focusing that enable you to
tune in on what is most interesting in your world:
involuntary "bottom-up" attention. This passive
process is not driven by you, but by whatever thing
in your environment is most salient, or obviously
compelling, such as that arresting scarlet cardinal."

"...the potentially life-or-death information that
attracts your involuntary focus is likelier to
come from something new or different in you
environment than from something old and familiar."

This sounds to me like the "orienting response".
Since the "orienting response" has been so extensively
studied, why have scientists stopped using the term?

Is "bottom-up" attention something entirely different
or is it the same but with a new and improved name?

Interesting read. Thanks for sharing.

Another thing to consider is that there evidence to suggest that certain plants release odours which decrease the stress response, and can prevent subsequent hippocampal neuron loss.

I'm just joining the dots together here, but it certainly seems plausible that taking a nature walk could decrease stress --> enhanced cognition?.

Anyway just some food for thought.

Some Papers for those who are interested.
- Nakashima et al.(2004)
- Akutsu et al. (2002)
- Choy, P. T. & Lavidis, N. A. (2007)

Here's tiny bit of anecdotal information: I have spent my career doing intense mental labor. I have developed a personal system that works well for me. I own 40 acres of forest land. I work on the computer for some hours until I sense my mind gumming up. Then I go out into the land and do hard physical labor -- repairing fences, bringing down snags, dragging them in, and cutting them up for firewood. Anything that gets me sweating. I do about an hour of such work then go back to the computer.

The practice has served me well. I suspect that it is a significant contributing factor to my productivity.

By Erasmussimo (not verified) on 09 Nov 2009 #permalink

Weather in Ann Arbor is not *that* different from weather in Chicago (it just happens a day or two later). And, depending on where the study was done (let's assume Psychology Dep't or Natural Resources), to get to the Arb, they'd have to walk through some blocks of city - from looking at maps, about the same distance from the University of Chicago to Washington Park...