Tag Archives: wellbeing

Virtual nature makes us feel good even if it’s Farmville

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Virtual nature makes us feel good even if it’s Farmville

By Sue Thomas, University of Bournemouth

Environmental psychologists have long known that encounters with the natural world are good for us. But nature can now also be found in our virtual lives – in the photos we share online, the games we play, even the words we use. And it seems to help soothe our connected minds.

Cyberspace is full of the images and language of nature. For example, does your desktop wallpaper feature a waterfall, a forest, or a beach? Do you harvest tomatoes in Farmville, explore the exotic territories of World of Warcraft or wander around in Second Life? Perhaps, like some Grand Theft Auto fans, you even share photos of its landscapes on Flickr.

If so, you’re experiencing nearby nature via your phone, tablet or computer screen. And it is almost certainly doing you some good.

In the 1980s, experimental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan studied the effects of nature on people. They found that small glimpses of the natural world – “nearby nature” – could have measurable effects on well-being. These phenomena, such as the sight of a few trees viewed through a window, may appear insignificant or far away, but they still play a powerful role in feeling good and giving us a sense of satisfaction.

The Kaplans found that people with access to nearby natural settings were healthier than those without. And these subjects also experienced increased levels of satisfaction with their home, job and life in general.

Biophilic design

Nearby nature does not have to be beautiful or complex. And, surprisingly, you do not have to be actually outside to gain the benefits. Many studies that have looked at this have taken place indoors, using images rather than the real thing. The effect is still potent when viewed through a window or seen in a photograph or video. A painting, even a wall calendar, can have a similarly beneficial effect.

These findings complement biologist E.O. Wilson’s writings on biophilia, the attraction to life and lifelike processes. They are also linked to biophilic design, an architectural practice championed by social ecologist Stephen Kellert. Biophilic design connects buildings to the natural world to create environments where people feel and perform better. Designs might include gardens, water features, and shapes mimicking those from nature like shells and foliage. There will be natural materials, plenty of light, and open spaces.

A natural effect?

It might seem unlikely that the digital world can provide similar kinds of healing environments. But there is a link between the results described above and today’s virtual landscapes. The measurably beneficial effects of nearby nature often occurred when they were viewed on a screen.

In 2008, cognitive neuroscientist Marc Berman reported that walking round a park produced more beneficial effects than walking in an urban environment. His experiment involved stressing subjects then testing their responses in both places.

Psychologist Deltcho Valtchanov wanted to try the same test in virtual environments so he set up three virtual reality spaces: a nature island with waterfalls, rivers, different kinds of trees, flowers, plants, grass, rocks, a beach and dirt paths; an assortment of 3D geometric shapes including coloured spheres, cylinders, cones, and rectangular and square boxes of various sizes; and a scale model of Shibuya station in Tokyo, a dense urban area with realistic and full-scale buildings and streets which was unfamiliar to any participants.

Using Berman’s methods, he tested the reactions of 69 subjects and found that the virtual nature space prompted an increase in positive affect – happiness, friendliness, affection and playfulness. At the same time negative affect – fear, anger and sadness – decreased. Results in the other two spaces, the geometric shapes and Shibuya station, were far less marked. Valtchanov concluded that virtual nature was responsible rather than the state of virtual reality.

Living well in the digital world

I called this phenomenon “technobiophilia” – the innate attraction to life and lifelike processes that are found in technology. Images of nearby nature on our phones and computers can alleviate mental fatigue. They enhance our attention, help us cope with distraction, and generally improve our well-being.

What might happen if we consciously experimented with adding technobiophilia to our wired lives? We already share nearby nature when we post our photos of rosy sunsets, blooming gardens and tranquil lakes online. Could we apply biophilic design to our hardware and software to help us feel and perform better? If we did, we might find a more healthy and productive balance between tech and nature.

It’s late afternoon in winter and you are weary… so begins ‘Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace’, out today in the US & Canada

streetlightIt is late afternoon in winter and you are weary. You have been reading and writing emails for hours; now you raise your eyes from the screen just as street lamps start to come on outside. Beyond the window, cars and buses glide by, their headlights catching the pale faces of shoppers and children coming home from school. You feel trapped in a grey world. Turning back to your device, you sigh, slip in your ear buds, and open a web browser to search for some relief. Just for a moment, you need to be somewhere else, somewhere bright and warm. As you click around, a video catches your eye and you discover…

…deer wandering through a sunlit forest glade. Birds sing, a stream rushes by, people are quietly working. You notice an odd wooden structure, a complicated camera rig, and a man with a megaphone. He says ‘Take One’. Someone sets a wooden ball onto a series of carpentered rails built like a long thin staircase. The ball alternately rolls and falls from one step to the next. Every time it drops, the impact generates a single musical note. Then another. You realise you are looking at an exquisitely-designed giant marimba and it is playing a familiar piece of music — Bach’s cantata ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’. Eventually the ball rolls to an exact stop on a wooden ledge where two mobile phones stand side-by-side, one facing to the front, the other to the back. It is a surprise to find these hi-tech devices in this woodland grove. The screen of each phone is rectangular just like other smart-phones but the case is unusual in that it is made from real cypress wood and smoothly curved to fit perfectly in the palm. The grain of each is different from the other because, of course, no two slices of wood look the same.

This is a promotional video for the Sharp Touch Wood SH-08C, filmed in a forest on the island of Kyushu, Japan. The combination of wild nature with state-of-the-art technology may at first appear incongruous but in the pages ahead we shall come to understand how thousands of years of human experience lie behind the design and marketing of this very contemporary piece of kit which has been encased in an ancient material and ‘discovered’ in a stand of trees.

As the movie comes to an end there is a brief moment when your imagination places the phone into your hand and you can almost smell the tangy aroma of the forest. Then another email pops up and you are back in the real world of any desk anywhere. But your brief excursion has made you feel just a little refreshed and before opening the mail you follow the link in the video to check out where you might be able to buy such a phone. Maybe it would be good to own that piece of real wood, to gaze at its patterns and feel its warmth between your fingers.

This kind of momentary reverie at the computer transports us into natural spaces which are very different from the industrial plastic and glass of modern life, and an increasing number of technology companies know that appealing to our love of nature in order to sell high tech products is both powerful and influential. But how did this apparently incongruous synergy come about?

It seems to be connected to the fact that as the internet developed it generated new kinds of experiences and encounters, such as ‘being online’, and new kinds of innovations then grew up alongside them. But all these tools and designs needed names, and many of the names we gave them drew upon metaphors from the natural world. These terms were not imposed on us and there was no single person directing them; rather, they seem to have evolved as part of the haphazard lingua franca of cyberspace. If the idea seems unlikely, consider this: just as the town of Macondo in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel One Hundred Years of Solitude was ‘so new that some things still lacked names’, so it was too with cyberspace. And even today the language of computers and cyberspace is still saturated with images from nature: fields, webs, streams, rivers, trails, paths, torrents, and islands; flora, including apples, blackberries, trees, roots, and branches; and fauna, such as spiders, viruses, worms, pythons, lynxes, gophers, not to mention the ubiquitous bug and mouse. This is somewhat surprising since internet culture is an entirely new construction built by human beings who mostly live in cities, and until very recently our engagements with it have taken place largely indoors because computers have needed to be close to an electricity supply. The advent of better batteries and mobile technologies is now changing that, but why should cyberspace have any relationship with nature anyway? As we shall see, the reasons are both unexpected and comforting in a world riven by anxieties about the effects of technology on our health and well-being.

The problem with cyberspace is that we love it, and we fear that we love it too much. When it comes to our phones, tablets and computers we are constantly torn apart by passion and guilt in equal measures. Are they making us addicted? Anti-social? Brainless? But how can that be when they also make us so happy? Strange as it may seem, there could be a connection between our passion for cyberspace and our affection for the natural world. Extensive research by environmental psychologists and social biologists has already demonstrated that exposure to nature helps us in many different ways such as relieving stress and restoring attention and concentration. Author Richard Louv, who coined the term ‘nature deficit disorder’, writes ‘The more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need to achieve natural balance.’ It might seem important, therefore, that we turn off our machines and go outdoors, and there are certainly many times when this is advisable. But the situation is more complicated than that.

My research shows that some of the features we so value in the natural world can also be found online; indeed,our subconscious has already imprinted nature into cyberspace. Now we need to recognise how that is happening and harness it for ourselves.


tbjacketbloomsburyYou’ve just read the first two pages of my new book Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace.

It’s published today in the US & Canada. Find out more here.

Also published here at Medium.