Screens (like the one you're at right now), phone calls, charts, text books, deadlines, they all require our immediate attention. In most facets of day to day life our minds are on task, our focus is directed from one specific point or problem to another; finishing a lesson plan, fixing a leak, buying groceries, preparing dinner. The lists go on and on, and the only break we seem to get is sleep, which often is not as much as we would like. All of these tasks require what is known as directed attention.
Directed attention, is attention that requires focus on the task at hand without giving way to emotions and distractions in the moment. Life bombards us with stimuli; noises, smells, sights, feelings, and when we are using directed attention we ignore these immediate stimuli, and make ourselves focus on some appointed issue. This type of attention utilizes our frontal lobe, and after a certain amount of use our frontal lobe gets tired and we become irritable and do not perform as well mentally.
The solution to this problem of an overworked frontal lobe is to utilize other parts of the brain to give it rest. Seemingly a simple task, and the best part is it can be. 'Soft fascinations', are those that catch our attention in an effortless free-flowing manner; "hey I hear a bird", "it feels chilly out", "look at those falling leaves". When the mind is allowed to freely move between whatever immediate stimuli it receives it utilizes the other parts of the brain and has a restorative nature to the often taxed frontal lobe. This type of mental healing is known as Attention Restoration Theory (ART); the idea that the mind restores itself and actually performs better when it can participate in involuntary attention.
Attention Restoration Theory claims that this can best be accomplished by spending time in nature. The stimuli presented by the natural world allow the brain to focus more on 'soft fascinations' instead of the directed tasks of most modern life. Students have been found to score better on memory tests and medical patients have been seen to recover more quickly with less need of pain killers when being exposed to nature instead of the sterile school and hospital environments. For more on the results of ART follow this link http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jjonides/pdf/2008_2.pdf to studies done by the University of Michigan.
What it all means is we need to get outside, and immerse ourselves in the natural world around us. It goes beyond the simple joy and beauty of nature and into our own minds and how they function.