Nature, the outdoors, animals and fresh air: they’re good for you. Don’t take my word for it. Science says so. Hospital patients, for example, recover faster when their window looks out on a natural scene rather than a brick wall. Pet owners have lower blood pressure.
The trouble is we’re showing a worrying trend towards not only harming our natural world, but also experiencing what’s left of it through the prism of manufactured technologies: Telegardens (planting seeds in a remote garden using a robotic interface), virtual walks and robot-pets are the future. Does this matter? As a first step towards finding out, Peter Kahn Jr. and colleagues compared the restorative effects of a real window to the benefits of a giant plasma screen linked to a live, high-definition camera recording of the exact same view visible through the window.
Ninety students undertook a series of tasks including coming up with uses for a tin can and clever labels for ambiguous drawings. Heart rate was used to measure stress recovery during the rest periods between tasks, when a researcher gave instructions for the upcoming challenge.
Some of the students completed the tasks at a desk opposite a window with views toward a pleasant natural scene beyond; others sat opposite a similarly-sized “plasma window” showing the identical scene, with the real window concealed behind; the remainder sat in the same position but with drapes entirely obscuring the real window.
In terms of heart rate recovery, students who were sat opposite the plasma window showed no benefit at all relative to the students who performed with drapes covering the window. By contrast, the heart rate of the students sat opposite the real window recovered more quickly, consistent with past research showing the calming benefits of a natural scene.
It’s unlikely the results are simply an effect of daylight in the room. Recovery among the students sat opposite the real window was no faster on brighter versus duller days. However, time spent looking out of the real window was correlated with speedier stress recovery.
So why didn’t nature as displayed on the plasma window have any benefit? There are potential technical reasons to do with the limitations of the digital display, including issues of parallax, pixilation and 2-D depth perception. However the researchers think the reason is more likely to do with the participants knowing that the plasma view simply wasn’t as “real”.
“Our results, even at this early stage, provide some cautionary thoughts,” the researchers said.
KAHNJR, P., FRIEDMAN, B., GILL, B., HAGMAN, J., SEVERSON, R., FREIER, N., FELDMAN, E., CARRERE, S., STOLYAR, A. (2008). A plasma display window?â€”The shifting baseline problem in a technologically mediated natural world. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 28(2), 192-199. DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2007.10.008