The Wall Street Journal recently published an excellent article penned by HVAC-obsessed Wendy Bounds on a perennially hot topic here at MNN: the air-purifying qualities of the common houseplant. In the article, Bounds expounds on the latest developments in "phytoremediation,” the harnessing of plants to remove health-compromising contaminants — benzene and formaldehyde being two biggies — from the air inside of homes and other indoor spaces.

Given that the air home inside your home can be 2 to 5 times more polluted than the air outside of it, scrubbing it clean with plants like English ivy, peace lily, and asparagus fern (see MNN's complete list of air-cleaning houseplants here) has emerged as a low-cost, aesthetically pleasing alternative to air purifiers and ventilation systems. As noted by Bounds, home improvement retailers like Home Depot and Lowe’s now advertise the air-cleaning qualities of the greenery that they sell.

So it’s been established that a cluster of pretty potted houseplants can help you maintain a healthier home … but a smarter home?

That’s the question du jour over at Scientific American in light of a recent study to be published by the Journal of Environmental Psychology that suggests that the presence of plants in a room, particularly in an office environment, can boost a sagging attention span.

The study is a houseplant-centric spin on existing research that finds floundering directive attention (the kind of attention that takes effort) can be rejuvenated through exposure to naturalistic environments. Basically, the act of clearing one’s head and rebooting one’s attention span by talking a walk through the park. But can a head be cleared and an attention span be refreshed simply by being surrounded by houseplants?

To test their hypothesis, the study’s authors rounded up a bunch of participants, put some of them in a room with no plants and put others in a room with four plants placed around a desk, and subjected them all to the same series of tests. First up was a Reading Span Test, which according to Scientific American “involves reading a series of sentences aloud and remembering the last word in each sentence. Similar to the way you might need to remember some information from a spreadsheet before entering it into a word processing document, this task requires that you fluidly switch between attention demanding tasks: from reading and memorizing at one moment, to writing and recalling at the next.”

Next came a proof-reading task followed by another Reading Span Test. The results? Participants working in the room with the plants improved their performance from the first Reading Span Test to the second while those working in the room sans greenery did not.

Although Scientific American notes that a whole bunch of science-y questions must be cleared up by researchers, the cognitive benefits of working amidst plants is indeed evident. Good lord. The way I’ve been functioning lately, it looks like I may have to start working from a greenhouse. More over at Scientific American.

Via [Scientific American]

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) reports on design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.