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Garden Design, Birdsong and Creativity

Updated: Apr 20, 2019

Published by Dwaynica Greaves, Lucas Klein, Tudor Balinisteanu and Agathe Fauchille

Psychology of aesthetics and creativity finds footing in numerous disparate realms. However, researchers like Paul Sowden at the University of Winchester have found common ground in the realm of nature. His interests lie in the cognitive and affective mechanisms of creative and restorative thinking processes, which he describes within the contexts of natural environments. Creativity in garden design, beauty and serenity in natural settings, and the role of birdsongs in producing such experiences all converge in the investigation of the experience of nature.

(Garden Design:, 2018)

The Creative Process in the Context of Garden Design

Contemporary art challenges boundaries. Researchers have shifted their attention from mainstream manifestations of traditional artistic practices, such as music and visual arts, and have conducted studies on human behaviour in relation to less well-known art forms. With his students and colleagues. Paul Sowden exemplifies this alternative viewpoint by studying the creative processes employed during garden design (Pringle & Sowden, 2017), following a personal attachment to gardens and nature. He sees garden design as an overlooked art form, and a rich and complex source of creative inspiration.

Sowden is interested in creative thinking as a dual process comprising of an associative mode and an analytical mode. The associative mode involves memory retrieval, generating ideas and concepts, and insight (‘aha’) experiences. In contrast, the analytical mode involves logical deduction, evaluation of remembered experiences and past behaviour, and evaluation of design ideas and concepts. Sowden studies these two modes of the creative process using a participant sample consisting of professional garden designers, garden design students, professional fine artists, and members of non-academic staff with lower creative achievement [P1] scores on the Creative Achievement Questionnaire (CAQ)(Carson, Peterson, & Higgins, 2005) who were used as the non-artist control group.

In a first experiment (Pringle & Sowden, 2017), participants were asked to design a garden with the theme ‘journey’ and were instructed to express their thoughts verbally. Pringle & Sowden developed a coding scheme to deconstruct participants’ verbal reports and found no difference between each group and how they transitioned between thinking modes (see Fig. 1). However, when comparing transitions between affective and cognitive thought within these thinking modes, findings revealed that the group of professional garden designers switched between analytic affective, and associative cognitive more than the non-artist control group (see Fig. 2).

Figure 1. Means of transition probabilities for each modal transition (Pringle & Sowden, 2017).

Figure 2. Means of transition probabilities for each modal transition including affective and cognitive states (Pringle & Sowden, 2017).

Sowden also explores the impact of meshed thinking in the context of flexibility (shifting between designs and/or producing more designs). Building on dual process theory as applied in psychology, according to which thought (in this case, creative thinking) is the result of two different cognitive processes (analytic and associative), Sowden uses a coding scheme based on two models of meshed thinking. Instances of meshed thinking occur when (1) both associative cognitive and analytic cognitive modes can be clearly identified in a text segment of a participant’s verbal report, and (2) there is clear textual evidence of both associative cognitive and analytic affective modes. Sowden’s research shows that, overall, professional garden designers carry out more meshed thinking, with meshed associative cognitive and analytic cognitive thought occurring more often than meshed associative cognitive and analytic affective thought. Interestingly, his research also shows that meshed analytic affective-associative cognitive thought correlates with design quality and creativity. Shifting from analytic affective to associative cognitive modes of thought is related to increased probability of initiating a transition between designs, and, the more shifting between designs occurs, the more the design outcome correlates with creativity and final design quality–with affect playing an important part in the shifting process. Therefore, including affect in the explanatory model for creative thinking in garden design increases its explanatory power.

The importance of meshed analytic affective-associative cognitive thought is also backed by neuroimaging research (Beaty et al., 2014). There is also evidence that activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC) implicates affective and associative processing, and is connected not only to each of these processes separately, but to a combination of both. Positive affective states are linked with disinhibited association (i.e. greater readiness to form or activate associations between stimuli) so that objects valued affectively as positive are more likely to facilitate associative activation and better mood (Shenhav, Barrett and Bar, 2014; Bar, 2009). If the mOFC plays a role in representing specific states and stimulus contexts associated with an experience one has learned to feel and recognise as rewarding, it may integrate value representations and their contingent contexts, thereby providing stronger association (Shenhav, Barrett and Bar, 2014). Sowden’s analysis spells out one of the possible behavioural effects of our ability to affectively hone in on an object from the material environment to trigger high reward associative processes. Seeking that mood reward, we learn to shape the material environment into a form which reflects our affectively invested associations between self and evocative objects.

Natural Environments: Cognitive and Affective Restoration

Although we may not immediately recognise them, external environments can have strong psychological effects on even the most resilient minds. The bustle of a city street, the tranquillity of a forest stream, or the excitement of a thunderstorm influence what we feel and think. Sunsets over rolling hills and dew-covered ferns make their way onto computer desktops and smartphone backgrounds, and noise-cancelling headphones block out the auditory chaos of urban settings. Where does this ubiquitous sense of calm and restoration in association with natural environments (Berman, Jonides, & Kaplan, 2008; Valtchanov, Barton, & Ellard, 2010; Kaplan & Talbot, 1983) come from?

(Photo:, 2019)

Researchers like Paul Sowden explain this restorative potential in terms of attention. The psychology of attention and its absence dates back to William James’s (1892) “voluntary attention”: an attentional mechanism that requires effort, can be voluntarily controlled and involves inhibition. From this concept, Stephen Kaplan derives the notion of “directed attention” (Kaplan, 1995) to substantiate the Attention Restoration Theory (ART) to model the power of an environment to restore one’s focus and concentration. ART consists of four dimensions: being away (geographical and psychological distance from causes of stress), coherence (connection to one’s environment as a whole), soft fascination (effortless attention) and compatibility (reconciliation between a person’s desires and opportunities afforded by their environment) (Kaplan & Talbot, 1983). Because it is both conscious and purposeful, prolonged directed attention causes fatigue and the experience of natural environments ‘restores’ our capacity for directed attention by redirecting ‘involuntary’ attention to the experience of nature.

Numerous studies justify the restorative potential of natural settings, from horticulture activity to garden design to river-rafting (Chen, Tu, & Ho, 2013; Garg, Couture, Ogryzlo, & Schinke, 2010; Pringle & Sowden, 2017), but appraisals of this effect tend to differ across studies. Hartig and colleagues (2003) used blood pressure to measure stress-reduction after walks in urban and natural settings, while Ratcliffe and colleagues (2013) used cognitive and affective appraisals coincident with previous models of perceived restorative potential (PRP) (Berman et al., 2008), but both approaches conclude that cognitive distraction, directed attention, and novelty (‘being away’) are associated with restoration, as well as positive valence and low to moderate arousal.

Bird Sounds and Cognitive Restoration

It appears that natural environments have the power to restore one’s focus and concentration by transporting us, fascinating us, and distracting us from habitual cognitive rumination and stress. But what specific aspect(s) of natural settings are responsible for nature’s restorative potential? There may be many answers to this question (e.g. the aesthetics of a panorama, being outdoors, engaging in an activity such as walking, listening to nature sounds such as the wind or birds, etc.). Visual contributions to an environment’s soothing potential have long been studied. However, literature lacks insight into auditory contributions to the restorative potential of a setting­–a gap that Sowden his students and colleagues seek to bridge.

Ratcliffe, Gatersleben and Sowden (2016) analysed reports of natural sounds which were deemed restorative by participants. They found that 35% of the 186 references to natural sounds included birdsong, followed closely by water (24%) and non-avian animals (18%). Amongst natural sounds, birdsongs are most often reported as having restorative power.

However, not all birds are particularly relaxing to listen to. For example, a raven’s singing is often perceived as threatening (sometimes called screaming rather than singing) while robins’ sounds are almost universally perceived as pleasant. Sowden and colleagues (2016) investigated which characteristics give a birdsong its restorative potential. They presented participants (N=174) with a stressful scenario and exposed them to bird sounds, before asking them to complete a PRP report and to state any associated memories. The highest PRPs were achieved through associations with green spaces, positive animal behaviour (e.g. raising young), certain times and seasons (e.g. morning, springtime) or active behaviour (e.g. walking). It was shown that the restorative power of birdsongs depends mainly on cognitive associations with feelings of soft fascination (R2 = .74) and of being away (R2 = .70) rather than affective associations (arousal). These findings support Kaplan’s Attention Restoration Theory (1995) and the idea that birdsongs restore our capacity for directed attention by redirecting ‘involuntary’ attention to the auditory experience of nature.

Paul’s research has elucidated a definitive yet nuanced connection between nature and psychology, and given us an important intellectual portal between inner and outer worlds in both goal-oriented activities such as garden design and passive experiences such as restorative potential and stress reduction. In the same way that natural environments and birdsongs help with restoration by evoking wonder and transcendence and by facilitating a mental space to withdraw from focused attention, the process of interacting with nature in garden design invokes specific cognitive states and processes. It may come as no surprise that sunsets over ocean scenes make their way onto laptop screens (not to mention gurgling brooks inside our alarm clocks) as we learn more about how restorative experience and analytic affective-associative cognitive thought processes influence our minds and moods.


[P1]The CAQ is the creative achievement questionnaire developed by Carson et al 2003 as a measure of creative achievement in 10 different domains. Creativity is considered proportional to score.

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