Does your phone wallpaper/screensaver show a picture of nature?
When I give talks about how our love of nature intertwines with our love of technology, I often ask the audience to put up their hands if they have a nature photo on their screensavers or wallpapers. Usually, at least half of them do.
I’m not surprised by that. Environmental psychology research has shown over and over again that just looking at pictures of nature such as photos, paintings, and videos can slow the heartbeat and reduce stress and anxiety. Of course, nothing beats the real thing, but images come a very close second.
Last weekend I wondered how a quick random Twitter poll would answer a similar question – ‘Does your phone wallpaper/screensaver show a picture of nature?’. 59 people responded, of whom 68% said Yes and 32% said No.(Results) Those numbers roughly match what my live audiences say. I didn’t ask, however, exactly what aspects of nature those pictures portrayed. There may have been some trees, perhaps? As in Flatland, a new live wallpaper from Maxelus which animals and birds stroll across your screen.
If you’re feeling stressed, seek out some trees
Coincidentally, some interesting research popped into my inbox today (thanks @danfoxdavies) which adds an extra dimension to the screensaver thing. Scholars at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and the University of Hong Kong have shown that not only do pictures and videos of trees reduce stress, but the density of trees is also important. They call it a ‘dose’, as in a dose of medicine, and ask which is more calming – viewing a single tree or a number of trees?
In a carefully designed experiment, they worked with 160 participants in a four stage exercise.
- The participants underwent a series of tests designed to induce psychological stress. The tests included 3 minutes to prepare a public speech, a 5-minute public speech, and a 5-minute subtraction task performed in front of two interviewers and a video camera, and completed without paper and pencil or a calculator. To increase stress levels, participants were told that their performance would be recorded and assessed later, but actually no video recording was made. During the tests, they were asked to report on their stress levels several times.
- The participants then viewed specially recorded 6 minute videos of varying kinds of landscapes.
- Then they undertook the stress tests again.
- Finally, they were given 15 minutes to write about how they had felt during the experiment.
The researchers analysed the resulting texts and identified keywords. For example, keywords used in the final piece of writing included “relaxing, calming, tranquil, at ease, comfortable, peaceful, serene, settled, safe, quite, a reprieve, mesmerizing, soothing, pleasant, unrushed, undisturbed, enjoyable, worry-free”.
They concluded that the percentage of people using keywords indicating stress recovery increases as the density of tree cover increases. At the lowest level of tree density, only 41% of participants reported a calming
effect but as tree cover density reached 36%, more than 90% of participants reported a stress recovery experience.
The team concluded that there is “a positive, linear association between the density of urban street trees and self-reported stress recovery”. In other words, if you’re feeling stressed, hang out in a place where there are lots of trees, and you’ll probably be able to relax.
The Savanna Hypothesis
One possible explanation for the fact that we feel better around trees is Gordon Orians’ Savanna Hypothesis, which argues that since humans originated from the African savanna where groups of trees like the acacias pictured below provided shelter and resources. Some deep ancient memory reassures us they offer safety.
Another reason could be that trees help us relax. Forest bathing or shinrin-yoku, involves walking or resting in a forest, breathing in the healing aromas of the trees and tuning into the abundant life around you.
The practice has been widely-researched in Japan, where a recent journal paper described an experiment with 19 middle-aged men suffering from high-blood pressure who were asked to take 80 minute forest walks on two weekends. Researchers said the activity “significantly reduced pulse rate, and significantly increased the score for vigor and decreased the scores for depression, fatigue, anxiety and confusion”.
Needless to say, forest bathing cannot really be undertaken in the sensory-deprived digital environment, at least not yet, but perhaps an image of forests might produce a sympathetic physiological nearby nature response? And, perhaps one day soon, we may even be able to produce virtual aromas to match.
Nearby nature on your screen
Nearby nature involves small suggestions of the natural world which, although seemingly insignificant and often out of physical reach, can play a powerful role in human well-being. People with access to nearby natural settings have been found to be healthier than those without, and often experience increased levels of satisfaction with their home, job, and life in general.
So, to wrap up, if you want some nature on your screensaver, consider trees.