Biophilic Lines Of Sight: How The Outdoors Restores Cognitive Function

Nika Offices, Rockville, MD. Design: OTJ Architects. Photo: Hoachlander Davis Photography

Nika Offices, Rockville, MD. Design: OTJ Architects. Photo: Hoachlander Davis Photography

In terms of the healthiest workplaces, providing your staff with access to a view of nature is tantamount to providing brain food and comfort food combined. The neuroscience behind the Biophilia Hypothesis—our innate, genetic-based need to affiliate with natural living systems—reveals why offices surrounded by visual access to outdoor nature is the benchmark of human-centric design.

According to neuroscience, our higher cognitive faculties—focused attention, memory, and planning—the ones we tax the most during work, require that we recharge them throughout the day. And having access to a view to nature that offers both prospect and refuge (biophilic design’s most researched wellness pattern), allows occupants to scan a distant horizon line or gaze into the sky’s zenith. In addition to content, the dramatic change of scale in such an experience enables visual processing to facilitate one of the brain’s vital functions: cognitive restoration.

Nancy Colier, author of The Power of Off, most people check their smartphones 150 times per day and young professionals now send a daily average of 110 texts. As our interconnected world unleashes an endless stream of prompts, our ability to focus yearns for nourishment. The chronic cognitive drain that interactive devices inflict on precious cognitive resources like attention, memory, and emotional balance, cannot be overstated.

Unispace Seattle Office. Design by Unispace. Copyright Trent Bell / Unispace.

Unispace Seattle Office. Design by Unispace. Copyright Trent Bell / Unispace.

Looking away from our work has a direct correlation to how well our mental and emotional reserves recover from extended period of focus. Thus, the outdoors represent much more than positive distraction. Multisensory access to the outdoors is part and parcel of our ability to effectively marshal and sustain our cognitive resources throughout the day.

The neurobiology of vision reveals how focused vision, which accounts for a mere five percent of our field of view, works in tandem with peripheral vision (95 percent) to map out, monitor and navigate our surroundings. However, all higher cognitive tasks that demand sustained attention over time, particularly over a narrow field of view, require regular visual breaks for us to sustain optimal mental acuity.

Even optometrists speak about the importance of the 20-20-20 rule. For every 20 minutes of focused work, we need to look, at least 20 feet away, for 20 seconds. And this is just to give the muscle in the “ciliary body” part of the eye an opportunity to relax.

What happens to our mental focus when we’re forced to sustain attention over a backlit surface—scrolling, clicking, typing—less than an arm’s length away? In time, clarity of mind diminishes. And to exacerbate the situation, what about the torrent of multisensory distractions we contend with from ever-present mobile devices and computers?