Watching Nature Programming Can Boost Well‑Being, Says Study
Experiencing simulated nature — through nature documentaries on TV or through virtual reality — can boost people’s moods, reduce negative emotions, and help allay isolation-induced boredom, finds a new study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.
With an increasingly urban population all over the world, and stuck under Covid19 lockdown, this is especially good news, as most of us lost what little connection we had to real nature. Now, it turns out, we may not be able to experience the real thing, but a television version can — to a certain extent — rejuvenate us, too.
Though watching nature shows reduces sadness and boredom, scientists found experiencing nature through virtual reality actually increased happiness and strengthened people’s connection to nature. A 2017 BBC Earth study reached a similar conclusion, finding people who watched Planet Earth II reported reduced levels of anxiety and anger, and increased feelings of awe, contentedness, joy, amusement, and curiosity. Yet another 2016 study found making maximum security prison inmates watch nature shows reduced their levels of aggression.
“We need nature for our physical and psychological well-being,” clinical psychotherapist and researcher for the 2016 inmate study, Patricia H. Hasbach, had said in a statement at the time.
This falls in line with the Biophilia Hypothesis that biologist Edward O. Wilson proposed in 1984, stating humans have an innate need to connect with nature and other forms of life that exist within it, a need he termed “biophilia.” Now we know this biophilia can be realized through digital doses of nature, too.
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“We’re particularly excited by the additional benefits immersive experiences of nature might provide. Virtual reality could help us to boost the well-being of people who can’t readily access the natural world, such as those in hospital or in long-term care,” co-author of the latest study, Dr. Mathew White, said in a statement. “But it might also help to encourage a deeper connection to nature in healthy populations, a mechanism which can foster more pro-environmental behaviors and prompt people to protect and preserve nature in the real world.”
Some, however, are skeptical of relying completely on technological nature, the benefits of which will likely wane with time, Dr. Peter Kahn, director of the Human Interaction With Nature and Technological Systems Lab at the University of Washington, tells Quartz: “Our connection with nature needs meaning. … VR nature is dumbed-down nature.”
“In the future, those using VR may be able to move around more and even choose their own route through an open VR space,” Dr. Kahn says. “That will allow more degrees of freedom, but when you bump your head into a VR rock, what happens to your head? Nothing! You’re not bound by nature— but neither can you be freed through it.”
Kahn believes a more realistic way to look at the future of how humans interact with nature is to “employ technological nature as a bonus on actual nature, not as its substitute.” If kids today grow up with only the substitutes, Kahn adds, “the physical and psychological benefits we’re seeing of technological nature in this generation will likely diminish in the generations ahead.”