People always say to look at something outside to help us psychologically relax. Is it nature that provides us with this benefit, or can artificial technology such as VR replicate that same psychological benefit?
If you are a young adult college student, there is a high probability, that at some point during your childhood your parents encouraged you to put down your phone or videogame and do something outside. Research shows that your parents had good reason to do so, as there are many benefits to being outside. Exposure to nature is correlated with improved mental health and overall well-being. When your parents wanted you to go outside, it was because they felt it would be “healthier”. But what is it about nature that provides us with these benefits? Most of the time people will say that looking at organisms alive outside such as plants is what provides these positive qualities. However, what if you were to instead look at something nature related on your phone or any technological device? What if you were in your living room watching Animal Planet or a nature documentary? Would look at the screen on your device provide you with the same benefits as looking at the leaves on the trees outdoors? This article delves deeper into these questions.
If looking at nature has psychological benefits for us, would looking at some plants and trees on a device be just as good. Could we stay indoors 24 hours a day and watch a screen filled with nature with no issue?
Nothing that an individual will spend approximately “8 hours and 47 minutes per day watching screens- with tablets, smartphones, pcs” Sanchez (2017) decided to conduct an experiment when looking at reality vs a tv screen. She decided to conduct research on the effect of watching electronics for a long period of time on the eyes.
Overall, they found that looking at a screen for hours upon hours is mentally draining and can lead to dried eyes and becoming extremely tired. Sanchez concluded that when we are looking at a screen for long hours, we tend to blink more frequently due to dry eyes. According to Looking at reality versus watching screens: Media professionalization effects on the spontaneous eyeblink rate, “blinking has not only a physiological function but also a psychological one”(Sanchez , 2017). Blinking is part of our psychological health, and when we view a screen for the long term despite it having a natural on it, it could be detrimental to our overall psychological health. Normally, when an individual is stressed, they tend to bring more frequently than normal. Therefore, when we blink at a high rate due to watching an electronic screen for a long period of time, that high blink rate will raise stress levels. Spending time looking at trees, plants, or anything outdoor-related on a screen could be bad for our sight as the screen would increase our blinking frequency tiring, our eyes and raising stress levels.
Would watching nature on a screen for a short period of time while walking provides the same benefits as going on a short ten-minute walk outdoors?
With advancing technology such as VR, could individuals put on a VR headset and walk on the treadmill to get the same benefit. Leger and Mekari (2022) conducted a study where they had individuals conduct an Outdoor Nature Walk and a Virtual Reality Walk for forty-five minutes. The results concluded that a walk outdoors and on a treadmill with a VR both provided the same benefits to memory and executive functions. However, despite Leger’s results, it’s important to note that outside allows us to feel, smell, and taste other things besides sight. For instance, if I were to be outside, the smell of the dirt, the sound of the trees, and the sight of animals would be psychologically relaxing to us. Despite the VR providing similar visual benefits of nature viewing as going outside and looking at nature, the VR cannot provide the smells, touch, etc. that the outdoors has.
According to the paper Simulating the Benefits of Nature Exposure on Cognitive Performance in Virtual Reality Window into Possibilities for Education and Cognitive Health, “nature walks can have positive outcomes on memory and executive function in younger adults”(Leger & Mekari, 2022). Individuals who choose to take a walk outside and take in nature have many psychological benefits in comparison to someone who was just walking on a treadmill with outdoor virtual images on the VR. These psychological benefits can include being energized, having more focus, being relaxed, having better executive and memory functions, and having a clearer mindset. Walking on a treadmill inside with a VR on in comparison to the outside is beneficial. However, what makes walking outside/being outside better are outdoors qualities such as the feeling of the wind, the smell of the grass, the sound of the bristling trees, etc.
A review article titled Smells of Nature Reduces Stress And Creates Positivity found that “Exposure to nature influences the human heart and brain through our five senses sight, smell and sound, taste and touch and poses many benefits to human health. The smell of fragrance improves mind, induces calmness” (Sridevi, 2020). A walk outdoors can provide an individual with the feeling of the sun warming their skin or the wind breezing on their hair. Furthermore, outside allows people to smell the flowers, or smell the lake and ocean. Wearing a VR indoors may allow an individual to look at trees, plants, or oceans, but it takes away the smell, touch, taste, and sound.
Being inside for hours and hours is mentally draining on an individual, especially if it involves staring at a screen for long-term hours. It is beneficial for individuals to take time out of their day to enjoy the beauty of nature. A short walk every day or an activity outside provides many health qualities to an individual. Looking at nature using VR will only provide an individual with visual benefits such as the sight of trees bristling, but not provide the other cognitive and psychological benefits from being outside such as feeling less stressed and being mentally restored. These other qualities that are disregarded would involve the 5 senses including, feeling the wind outside, and the scent of flowers. Taking a step outside a day for ten minutes can overflow an individual with the joys and beauties of the outdoors.
Andreu-Sánchez, Celia (2017) “Looking at Reality versus Watching Screens: Media Professionalization Effects on the Spontaneous Eyeblink Rate.” PLoS ONE, vol. 12, no. 5, pp. 1–9. EBSCOhost, https://doi-org.proxy2.library.illinois.edu/10.1371/journal.pone.0176030.
Huettig, Falk, and Gerry T. M. Altmann. (2011) “Looking at Anything That Is Green When Hearing ‘Frog’: How Object Surface Colour and Stored Object Colour Knowledge Influence Language-Mediated Overt Attention.” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, vol. 64, no. 1, pp. 122–45. EBSCOhost, https://doi-org.proxy2.library.illinois.edu/10.1080/17470218.2010.481474.
Léger, Michel T. and Said Mekari. (2022) “Simulating the Benefits of Nature Exposure on Cognitive Performance in Virtual Reality: A Window into Possibilities for Education and Cognitive Health.” Brain Sciences (2076-3425), vol. 12, no. 6, p. 725. EBSCOhost, https://doi-org.proxy2.library.illinois.edu/10.3390/brainsci12060725.
Skibins, Jeffrey C. (2022). “Digital Modalities, Nature, and Quality of Life: Mental Health and Conservation Benefits of Watching Bear Cams.” Human Dimensions of Wildlife, EBSCOhost, https://doi-org.proxy2.library.illinois.edu/10.1080/10871209.2021.2024629.
Sridevi, G (2020). Smells of Nature Reduces Stress And Creates Positivity – A Review. International Journal of Pharmaceutical Research (09752366), 4185–4190. https://doi-org.proxy2.library.illinois.edu/10.31383/ijpr/2020.SP2.519