Can Simulated Nature Support Mental Health? Comparing Short, Single-Doses of 360-Degree Nature Videos in Virtual Reality With the Outdoors.
Author: Arseniy Minasov
About the Author: Arseniy Minasov is the Research Coordinator at Northwestern’s Department of Anthropology (Dr. Horton Research Group): Health Benefits of Nature. He graduated from Northwestern in 2018 with a B.A. in Biological Anthropology. He studies technology, gaming, and the intersection of nature-based interventions with technology and medicine, while also enjoying competitive gaming and triathlons.
Don’t Count VR Out of Providing the Benefits of Nature.
Virtual Reality (VR), one of the newest and most powerful technological advancements, may help connect the realms of technology and psychology. VR, used in fields of both medicine and entertainment, is a simulated environment that displaces the user through visual and auditory stimuli into another environment.
With the dual aspects of increased realism and escapism, VR may offer a replacement for visual and auditory stimulation when it comes to simulating real-world psychological benefits, such as exposure to nature and open space/green space. A VR intervention would, expectedly, be weaker than a real exposure to nature, but those for whom a real-life encounter is impossible may benefit from the virtual experience.
In a 2020 study, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign sought to understand where along the spectrum of “no physical exposure to nature” to “extensive exposure to nature” VR lies. Participants indicated their “nature preferences” using beauty-and-disgust surveys. Then, in the trial, participants were randomly assigned to sit in one of three places: (A) facing a white wall, (B) outdoors in nature, or (C) indoors with a VR representation of the same nature space as group B.
Researchers measured the mood, restorativeness, and skin conductivity levels (SCL) of each participant. Overall, the study found that VR can simulate nature to some extent – with a noticeable difference between no-nature and VR when it came to mood – but VR does not come close to the real-nature intervention.
The study appears to show that VR cannot simulate nature to the extent that would be beneficial on a widespread, unconditional basis. There are, however, several limitations in the study that merit additional attention.
First, the VR technology used in the study was from 2015 and found on a Samsung smartphone – not a stand-alone or PC-compatible native VR headset. The differences in quality between those are stark, and despite dramatic advances in a phone’s VR potential in recent years, it is not nearly as powerful as some higher-end VR machines now available.
Second, the study itself mentions several of its own limitations, such as the fact that its college-student cohort was not ideal for observing changes in psychological variables. (These limitations ring true to our own studies at Northwestern University with actual nature exposure as well.) Nevertheless, with VR still in its relative technological infancy, we should not discredit or discount the idea of having these technological marvels in our own homes and potentially in hospitals to give people who need nature access the possibility of receiving it.
- Arseniy Minasov
Source Article: Browning, M., K. J. Mimnaugh, C. J. van Riper, H. K. Laurent and S. M. LaValle (2019). "Can Simulated Nature Support Mental Health? Comparing Short, Single-Doses of 360-Degree Nature Videos in Virtual Reality With the Outdoors." Frontiers in Psychology 10: 2667. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32010003