Through the Lens of Attention Restoration Theory:
The Pursuit of Learning in Gardens throughout History

Amy Thielen
Karen R. Diller
Washington State University Vancouver


Attention Restoration Theory (ART), the environmental psychology framework developed by S. Kaplan, has been helpful in explaining the restorative properties of natural settings for individuals experiencing cognitive depletion. Although ART associated research has focused exclusively on discerning the restorative properties of modern day environments, we wanted to explore the restorative aspects of natural settings, specifically gardens, in the past. Notably, we wanted to examine whether the properties that made historic environments restorative for cognitive depletion also made the natural settings conducive for learning and contemplation among the historic cultures researched. By applying the properties of ART to sites in the ancient Mediterranean (Greece and Rome), Song and Yuan Dynasties in China, and Stuart through Victorian England, we seek to show how the historic environmental sites exhibited the same restorative cognitive effects of present day environments and stimulated learning and intellectual contemplation.


Environmental psychologists today are finding connections between being in green spaces (nature, gardens) and the ability to direct one's attention to important matters. Although most of this research is being applied to urban design, environmental studies, and healthcare, there are some attempts to apply what is being learned to the field of education. Researchers are beginning to ask whether being in nature, having indoor plants, or viewing gardens assists in the learning process by helping people to restore their ability to direct their attention to important tasks. Although demonstrating through scientific methods the connection between being in green spaces and the ability to study and learn is somewhat new, it could be viewed as a rediscovery of long cultural traditions that have existed in both Eastern and Western cultures. Throughout history people have retreated to specific places in order to stimulate their intellectual thought, gain inspiration, or contemplate philosophical and sacred ideas. Historical examples from China, the Greek and Roman Empires, and Great Britain illustrate cultural traditions of connecting outdoor space and gardens with places conducive to contemplation and the development of philosophical thought. In this paper, we briefly explore the historical traditions of connecting green spaces with the pursuit of learning within the current environmental psychology framework of Attention Restoration Theory (ART). This exploration provides an historical and philosophical background in which to ground current work in restorative environments while demonstrating the long-standing traditions of connecting gardens and nature with learning and contemplation.

Why are there both Eastern and Western traditions that associate natural settings with settings appropriate to contemplation and stimulation of ideas? Is it solely based on practical needs such as light and protection? Or is this association a demonstration of the wisdom of historical cultures to recognize a positive learning outcome even though we are only now able to more scientifically understand this through ART and the studies in environmental psychology?

Before going on, it is important to acknowledge the more practical reasons that outdoor spaces, both natural and at times secluded, were used for study. Historic gardens were used for practical purposes, such as growing vegetables, just as they are in the present. Another reason people spent time in gardens was the abundance of sunlight. Throughout most of history, reading indoors would have been quite difficult. Oil was quite expensive and open flames always came with the danger of fire. Finally, another reason students and philosophers spent time in secluded gardens and natural areas was for personal protection. As Cesar Chaparro (2011) described, Middle Age era monks were forced to have their “monastic institutions moved to the countryside” from the cities because “cities lost their ability to keep their dwellers safe” (p. 26). Those associated with the tenth century Yuelu Academy in China noted that the remote location was protection against hostile political and social leaders (Wu, 2005). These practical considerations are certainly part of the reason that outdoor spaces have been associated with contemplation, study, and learning but, as will be shown, the connection between these two go well beyond the practical.

Attention Restoration Theory (ART)

Before examining historical examples of the connection between green spaces and learning using ART as a framework, the main tenants of ART need to be explained. ART states that “prolonged or intense cognitive effort depletes the ability to direct attention, and restorative environments assist in the recovery of directed attention” (Ouellette, Kaplan & Kaplan, 2005, pp. 175-176). Directed attention is needed for various aspects of learning requiring cognitive functioning, such as studying, writing, and taking exams (Felsten, 2009). One’s directed attention can become exhausted and depleted if too much time is spent engaged in activities that require constant cognitive effort or if time is spent engaging in a sole activity that requires great cognitive effort. Kaplan (1995), in one of his earliest writings about ART, noted that this mental fatigue is evidenced as people become irritable, easily distractible and unable to pay attention to the activity at hand. Based on ART, Kaplan, and the others researching in this field, believed that one’s cognitive functioning and directed attention could be restored if time is spent in “restorative environments” (e.g. Kaplan, 1995; Felsten, 2009).

Natural environments or environments with significant greenery may be considered ideal restorative settings if they exhibit all four of the properties characteristic of restorative environments as identified by Stephen Kaplan and most succinctly described in a later publication by Ouellette, Kaplan, and Kaplan (2005). These four properties are: the sense of being away, fascination, extent, and compatibility. The sense of being away is the idea that a person is “physically or mentally removed from the activities that are attentionally demanding” (p. 176) by either moving to a different physical environment or by taking a mental break by focusing on another topic or activity (Ouellette et al., 2005). The second property, fascination, means that the environment must be “facilitating involuntary attention by the intrinsic interest of the situation” (Ouellette et al., 2005, p. 176). This form of attention “is compelling without demanding mental exertion” (Ouellette et al., 2005, p. 176). As Berman, Jonides, and Kaplan (2008) noted, natural environments provoke involuntary attention because these environments are “rich with inherently fascinating stimuli,” (p. 1207) without demanding directed attention. The third property is extent or “the sense of being somewhere with sufficient scope that one can dwell there for a while, whether or not the physical place is vast” (Ouellette et al., 2005, p. 176). According to Herzog, Maguire, and Nebel (2003), extent allows one to “occupy the mind for a period long enough to allow directed attention to rest” (p. 160) and can be small in size, such as Japanese gardens. Finally, the fourth property of restorative environments is compatibility. Compatibility is the idea that there is a “perceived match between the person’s informational needs and what the environment provides” (Ouellette et al., 2005, p. 176). According to Felsten (2009), a compatible environment “fits what the individual is trying to achieve” by spending time in the environment and “provides the information needed by the individual to achieve” his or her intended goal (p. 161).

Of course it is only possible to scientifically test this theory in the modern world, and numerous researchers have (e.g., See studies by Berman, et al., 2008; Ouellette et al., 2005; Felsten, 2009). However, the current authors were intrigued by the question of restorative environments in the past, specifically those associated with learning. Is there evidence from historical cultures that the restorative aspects of being in natural spaces was recognized as being conducive to learning and contemplation? Can the four properties elucidated in ART be used as a structure for looking at the association of gardens and nature with learning across time and space?

ART, Green Spaces, and Learning

Examining specific sites and the writings of specific authors from ancient Greece and Rome, the Song and Yuan Dynasties in China, and Stuart through Victorian England will be helpful in answering these questions.

Ancient Greece and Rome

Although it is clear that gardens and other natural areas were associated with learning in classical Greece, there is very little primary evidence for the reason. In the fourth century BCE, first Plato and later Epicurus founded schools in Athens. Plato's Academy was located in a natural grove outside of the city walls while Epicurus' school was in a garden built either next to his home or close to the academy (sources are somewhat contradictory). The placement of the Academy may have had more to do with the fact that Plato inherited the land than a conscious decision to locate a school on that particular spot. Epicurus' choice of a garden, however, was more deliberate. He either went against the fashion of the time and actually chose to build a garden for his school at his house in town, or he deliberately chose land in a more rural setting outside of the city walls. In either case, Epicurus chose to associate his school with a garden space (Giesecke, 2007).

We know from both the archaeological record and later ancient sources that Plato's academy included spaces for walking and conversing, both seen as key to the educational process. Not only could students and teachers walk in the natural spaces but buildings also included covered walkways that provided views of natural places (Wycherley, 1962; Rihill, 2003).

Rather than looking for evidence that ancient Greeks somehow recognized how gardens held the four properties recognized by ART, it is perhaps more useful to note how these early choices for academies set a tradition in the Western world that is still present today. This tradition of locating academies within garden-like settings and of associating walking in nature with philosophical conversation and learning, started in ancient Greece, travelled through the Roman Empire into Medieval Europe, and is alive today in such spaces as the Philosopher's walk in Toronto (Anderson, 2009; Hariri, 2007). The ART property of compatibility, in the western tradition, may be due in a large part to these early and long-standing associations between gardens and learning.

By the time one gets to Rome, there is more evidence for how Romans talked about gardens in ways that demonstrate the underlying properties of ART. First is the property of compatibility. As noted by Roman scholar, O'Sullivan, there was a Hellenization of the Roman Empire and by the first century BCE, one can see this in many aspects of the culture, including architecture (O’Sullivan, 2007). Vitruvius, an architect at the time, noted that the large colonnades that were part of both private and public buildings could form rooms “where philosophers, rhetoricians, and others who delight in learning may sit and converse” (Vitruvius, Arch. 5.11.2, trans. 1960). Thus, the tradition set by the classical Greeks for walking and conversing in outdoor environments was imported to Rome and, more importantly, to the country villas of wealthy Romans. In fact Cicero called the peristyle in his country home the “Academy,” naming it after Plato’s school in Athens (O’Sullivan, 2006). In addition there is archaeological evidence for the close physical association of gardens with libraries and places in the villa used for conversation and contemplation (Giesecke, 2007; Bowe, 2004). According to Bowe, most of the ancient Roman villa gardens had pavilions that served as “quiet retreats” (Bowe, 2004, p. 13). Additionally, these pavilions sometimes had small libraries associated with them and the libraries had even more “small-scale, secluded gardens adjacent to them” (Bowe, 2004, p. 13). These villa gardens, designed with adjacent libraries, give support for the interpretation that villa gardens were attractive retreats for learning. According to O’Sullivan (2006), “Libraries . . . inevitably included porticoes in the design, where visitors could converse while walking, or simply meditate upon their readings” (pp. 149-50).          

Texts written by first century BCE Romans Cicero and Pliny the Younger, both of whom owned country estates, provide evidence for the use of country villas as retreats for intellectual and philosophical contemplation. In their writings, one can come to understand that these quiet, garden-like spaces were used for intellectual pursuits not only because they were compatible with that activity but because they provided the sense of being away and the sense for being able to linger without interruption. In Cicero's letters to Atticus, he remarked that Tusculum (his country estate) “is the one place where I rest from all troubles and toils” (Cicero, Att. I.5.7, trans. 1999) and that “I am delighted with my place at Tusculum so much that I feel content with myself when, and only when, I go there” (Cicero, Att. I.6.2). And, finally, “There are many things to worry and vex me, but once I have you here to listen I feel I can pour them all away in a single walk and talk” (Cicero, Att. I.18.1). Pliny the Younger's writings are also helpful. He remarked, “I betake myself either to the terrace or the covered portico, and there I meditate and dictate what remains upon the subject in which I am engaged” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, IX.xxxvi, trans. 1915).

Although it is difficult to find any references that relate directly to the property of fascination, it is possible to say that the outdoor gardens, colonnades, and paths built as part of these country villas certainly provided much fascination (Bowe, 2004; Giesecke, 2007).

Song and Yuan Dynasties, China

Just as Plato's Academy acted as an early example in western culture of the association between gardens and learning, the tenth century CE Yuelu Academy in China is an example from eastern cultures.1 The Yuelu Academy, a Confucian place of study, was built during the Song Dynasty in the tenth century CE. Students attended the Yuelu Academy to study Confucian teachings and readings. The Academy’s gardens and natural secluded setting near Yuelu Mountain allowed students and scholars to reflect on the philosophical ideas of Confucianism (Wu, 2005). In fact, according to Wu (2005), “most academies were located in secluded mountains away from cities,” (p. 157) not only because of the need for protection from hostile Dynastic leaders but also because neo-Confucian “pedagogy is grounded in engaging with the natural world” (p. 162). In fact, Confucian philosophy compares human virtue to the natural landscape, and early texts show this connection. Couplets written on plaques close to the Academy’s library and at other locations on the grounds of Yuelu make this connection clear. One compares studying to absorbing ancient waters:

[Studying at] the famous mountain [as if] absorbing water [from] antiquity; up [in the tower] numerous ancient classics are stored; [including] manuscripts of hundreds of philosophic schools. (Wu, 2005, p. 176)

And, two others compare water to philosophical writing and conversation:

Education is as rain drops flowing endlessly to the distance; spring water surges like inspired writing gurgling out ceaselessly.


One stream flows ceaselessly so that the pond is never dry; two virtuous men embarked in dialogue and eventually agreed on the same dao. (Wu, 2005, p. 178)

Compatibility between nature and philosophical contemplation is demonstrated in these couplets.

Philosophers Zhu Xi (1130-1200) and Zhang Shi (1133-1180) both played major roles in the development of Yuelu Academy as teacher and headmaster, respectively. Direct evidence shows how profoundly gardens affected Zhu Xi in terms of learning and philosophical thought. In a personal letter from Xi to Zhang Shi, Zhu Xi stated that it was difficult for him to fully comprehend Zhang Shi’s ideas before walking around the Academy’s landscape, but that his “mind felt open and was greatly enlightened” (as cited in Wu, 2005, p. 161) to Zhang Shi’s ideas after walking through the Academy’s grounds. The Academy’s landscape appears to have been a restorative environment for Xi as it exhibits the ART properties of fascination, extent, and compatibility. Fascination, or the “[facilitation] of involuntary attention by the intrinsic interest of the situation,” (Ouellette et al., 2005, p. 176) is characteristic of the setting of the Academy grounds due to the abundant natural stimuli. As Wu (2005) described it, “scholars would stroll in the gardens . . . to observe natural phenomena,” such as the flowers, grasses, ponds, and nearby Yuelu Mountain (pp. 181-183). This is indicative of “soft fascination,” which allows people to “reflect” on ideas and restore their directed attention by viewing “aesthetically pleasing stimuli” (Felsten, 2009, p. 160). The Academy’s grounds are characteristic of extent because they appear to occupy a world separate from the Academy’s buildings. Finally, the Academy’s grounds were characterized by the property of compatibility. The natural environment provided Xi with the “information needed” for him to reach his goal of understanding Shi's ideas. 

Not only was China’s Yuelu Academy an ideal spot for Confucian philosophers to engage in philosophical thought but it also functioned as an ideal area for scholars and students to study. Wu (2005) suggested that “the intellectual excellence of Yuelu Academy was attributed to its location” (p. 158). Students, scholars, and teachers found the Yuelu Academy's grounds to be compatible with their desire to gain deeper understandings of their studies. Wu cited a seventeenth century record by Mao Jike stating, “While the Academy is located right at [Yuelu Mountain’s] foot, this is indeed the place where the qi gathers in abundance and houses an environment that nurtures outstanding talent” (as cited in Wu, 2005). This perception of the connection between the Academy’s natural surroundings and study suggests that the natural environment profoundly affects and benefits student academic success. In Wu’s (2005) interpretation, verses written by Confucian scholars suggest the “interlacing of learning from the landscape and the [Confucian] classics” (p. 176).

Similar to Roman villa libraries, the Yuelu Academy’s library building and buildings used for study were located near courtyards. The close physical association between nature and buildings used for reading and study implies that students could move from the library or classrooms to the courtyard to study in the natural environment. Just as ancient Roman and Greek scholars and philosophers wandered through their academies’ gardens, Chinese philosophers did as well. Confucian philosophers spent time “strolling, thinking, and teaching” (p. 178) as they walked back and forth from Yuelu Academy’s garden to the academy’s lecture hall (Wu, 2005). Direct evidence from students, included in Yan Ruyu’s Memoir of Master Luo Shenan, shows that students also perceived a connection between learning and nature at the Yuelu Academy. According to Ruyu, one student wrote, “When teaching, the headmaster insists students develop their interests in nature, to firm their virtues, and to comprehend social issues. In the breaks, [he] would lead the students to appreciate flowers in the mountains . . . and linger amongst pavilions . . . ” (as cited in Wu, 2005, p. 183). This student’s quote is a prime example of how the Yuelu Academy’s landscape was characterized by the property of fascination. By encouraging students to take breaks from their academic studies in favor of spending time in the natural environment, the students’ involuntary attention was “facilitated…by the intrinsic interest” (p. 176) of nature (Ouellette et al., 2005). Not only was the natural setting conducive to learning, but students could also learn from the natural setting.

Oxford & Cambridge: Stuart to Victorian Eras

In England, the oldest most widely known gardens used for study are associated with the gardens at renowned universities, Oxford and Cambridge. A nineteenth century architect, Alfred M. Githens, noted that “Courts and quadrangles attractively planted and entered through archways or cloisters, at once create an atmosphere of quiet beauty conducive to study and contemplation” (as cited in Dober, 2000, p. 164). These architectural features apply to universities built pre-twentieth century as well. Based on Githens’ views, the courts and quadrangles helped students to reach their goals of “study and contemplation” (as cited in Dober, 2000, p. 164) as the appealing plantings and location of the spaces near archways or cloisters aided in creating a compatible, learning-conducive environment.

Evidence of how these natural spaces were used to enhance study goes back to at least the sixteenth century. Batey asserted that Desiderius Erasmus, a sixteenth century English humanist who spent time at both Oxford and Cambridge, “enjoyed working in the upstairs library at [Queens’ College Cambridge], looking out into the garden” (Batey, 1989, p. 40). Though Erasmus may have looked out onto the garden because the light made working and reading easier, it is also possible that looking out onto the natural garden space allowed him to relax and think more clearly. Notably, Erasmus is believed to have said, “there is nothing nicer than having a library overlook a garden” (Batey, 1989, p. 118). Modern research studies support the notion that one does not have to experience nature, but merely view a natural environment, to receive the restorative benefits. Tennessen and Cimprich (1995) found that students performed better on cognitive tests when the view from their dormitory windows was of the natural environment rather than of a built or partially built environment. The perceived restorativeness of the environment appears to be linked to the ART properties of fascination and extent. According to the fascination factor, the garden’s appeal may be attributed to the natural stimuli, such as the trees, flowers, and lawns, which helped restore Erasmus’ directed attention for academic study. Additionally, the environment exhibited extent because Erasmus’ time spent looking onto the garden, rich with natural stimuli, helped to create the sense that the natural environment was another world or domain separate from the indoor library.        

Another key example of the connection between gardens, learning, and ART can be seen from evidence by seventeenth century scientist Isaac Newton who studied and researched at Trinity College at Cambridge. At Cambridge, Newton’s laboratory was located right off a garden, his personal garden, and Newton often spent time walking in his garden in “concentrated thought” (Batey, 1989, p. 72). Evidence from Newton’s assistant indicates that Isaac Newton’s time spent wondering and contemplating in his garden provided inspiration for his scientific ideas and works. Isaac Newton’s garden seems indicative of the ART properties being away, extent, and compatibility. Since Newton’s garden was located adjacent to the building holding his laboratory, it appears that the garden acted as his personal retreat. The natural garden environment allowed him to take mental breaks from his research and simply engage in personal contemplation. Additionally, Newton’s garden exhibited extent because the garden’s status as a source of greenery amongst the buildings at Cambridge suggested that the garden acted as Kaplan’s concept of a “whole other world” (as cited in Felsten, 2009, p. 160) for Newton. Even though his garden appeared small based on a seventeenth century illustration from Loggan’s Cantabrigia Illustrata, it was ample enough in size to allow him to stroll through the garden for a considerable period of time (Batey, 1989).

Finally, Newton’s garden is indicative of compatibility. His assistant noted that Newton would be wandering in his garden when he suddenly would turn around, run back to his laboratory, and begin writing “without giving him the leisure to draw a chair to sit down on”  (as cited in Batey, 1989, pp. 72-73). According to Ouellette et al. (2005), “Substantial research has shown that time in nature, even if only for a short duration, can offer restorative benefits” (p. 176). This description suggests that Newton’s time spent wandering in his garden, even for a limited period of time, could provide him immediate intellectual inspiration or understanding he needed for his theories.

There is also evidence from the nineteenth century indicating the academic benefits of university gardens. Historian Arnold Toynbee described Oxford college gardens as areas where “one walks at night and listens to the wind in the trees, and weaves the stars into the web of one’s thoughts” (Montague, Gell, & Stover, 1889, p. 14). Toynbee’s quote is an ideal example of the ART property of fascination. The natural “aesthetically pleasing stimuli,” such as the trees and stars, captured Toynbee’s involuntary attention, which allowed for “reflection that best promotes attention restoration” (Felsten, 2009, p. 160). Toynbee’s description of college gardens implied that spending time walking through a college garden could help a person open his or her mind to new ideas. Although Toynbee’s walks occurred many centuries after the contemplative walks of ancient Roman scholars, like Cicero and Pliny, Toynbee’s outdoor walks seemed very similar in purpose to the philosophical walks of ancient Romans. Also, Toynbee’s walks through the university’s grounds seem indicative of extent. Similarly to Cicero’s and Pliny’s gardens, Oxford’s university grounds convey extent because there is ample room for Toynbee to walk and “sufficient content,” such as the trees, stars, lawns, and plants that can “engage the mind” for academic study and contemplation (Herzog et al., 2003, p. 160).


When people need to study, contemplate new ideas, find intellectual inspiration, or find understanding through meditation, they often go to places that are quiet, peaceful, and calming. For some individuals, that sense of solitude needed for intellectual stimulation is found indoors, but for many others, the environment most conducive to learning is the natural outdoors. The allure of the natural environment for learning may be explained through the attention restoration theory (ART). ART conjectures that time spent in a natural environment is more restorative for activities requiring significant cognitive functioning than time spent in an urban environment. This is primarily due to the fact that natural environments contain at least some of the four ART properties: being away, extent, fascination, and compatibility.

Since all ART related studies have been conducted in the past thirty years, it can be easy to assume that the relationship between humans, nature, and cognitive restoration has only existed for that same time period. Ample evidence from modern studies clearly and straightforwardly makes the connection between spending time in a pleasant, green park and restoration of directed attention and the stimulation of intellectual thought. However, that does not mean that the connection between nature and attention restoration is a recent phenomenon. Although there is limited evidence from the past confirming the connection between natural stimuli and cognitive restoration, sources and evidence do exist.

For scholars from first century BCE Greece, twelfth century CE China, and nineteenth century CE England, one of the preferred ways to learn, study, and find intellectual inspiration was through wandering in a villa or academy garden. The common thread in these traditions is that people find retreating to natural spaces conducive to the pursuit of learning and philosophical inspiration.


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