Can plants help you perform better?

Yes, plants can help you perform better at certain tasks, maybe.

A study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology asked 34 students to perform certain cognitive tasks.  Half had four plants on their desk (including some flowers) the other half used the same room, performed the same task, but had no plants to keep them company.

The student’s attention was tested three times: when they arrived in the office; after a difficult task; and after a five min break.

Attention improved after the difficult task for those with plants but not those without plants!  Attention did not improve after the break for either group.

So why did plants seemingly aid attention? Was it the inner ‘omm shanty shanty’ magic of plants?

Interestingly the authours of the study propose a different potential explanation: Directed attention (the sort you need for attention tasks) gets depleted.  Nature has a complexity about it that triggers an undirected (wandering) sort of attention – this gives the direct attention system a wee rest and recharge.

So what about the science

For those that have not noticed, I have a mission to promote critical thinking of scientific methods in this, post-truth world (for which I blame The Donald).  I am a campaigner for the truth.  I always start with science, however, one must bring their critic’s hat even here.

What are your thoughts about what could be the flaws in this study? Or even just the things that make generalising difficult?

In this instance, the small sample size is a clear limitation. Something else is the fact that both conditions had a nature view outside the window by the desk.  This may have interfered with the results.  Another issue is the no-plant condition was a terribly barren one.  Hence, perhaps the improvement in attention was nothing to do with plants and just to do with ‘things’ versus very bare.  Finally, there is that question mark about why there was not any improvement after a break – when the plant group could really have benefitted from all that nature complexity right there under their noses.  Fortunately, the authors know what they are doing and acknowledge and discuss all of these.

So on balance, I think I’ll be putting a few plants near my desk.

Links etc

FYI: This is part of our quick reads series; helping you stay informed without hogging your precious time.  This post covers the peer-reviewed academic paper shown below.

Raanaas, R. K., Evensen, K. H., Rich, D., Sjøstrøm, G., & Patil, G. (2011). Benefits of indoor plants on attention capacity in an office setting. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 31(1), 99-105. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2010.11.005