Woman using VR goggles in forest

Nature’s healing benefits go virtual

The therapeutic benefits of spending time in nature are well known, but for many people in need of healing, connecting with the wild world isn’t as simple as walking out the front door. Technology can help bridge the gap. 

The therapeutic benefits of spending time in nature are well known, but for many people in need of healing, connecting with the wild world isn’t as simple as walking out the front door. Technology can help bridge the gap. 

Spending time in nature is good for our health. Ever since Roger Ulrich’s seminal study on stress recovery, scientists have amassed a growing body of evidence pointing to how nature heals us by triggering our inborn ‘biophilia’, or affiliation with the environment. 

“Evolutionarily speaking, nature is familiar and comfortable to us. An action as simple as gazing into a campfire relaxes the prefrontal cortex and calms down the ‘monkey mind.’ The complexity, wonder and mystery of nature captures our attention and brings us from a fight-or-flight state to a restorative state,” explains Matthew Browning, Director of the Virtual Reality and Nature Lab at Clemson University.

But getting out into nature can be a process fraught with hurdles for people with disabilities, mental health problems, or mobility issues – groups that would benefit from nature’s therapeutic effects.

Browning is among a number of researchers around the world who are looking into innovative ways of accessing nature through digital technology. He describes how recent advances in VR headset technology have enabled sophisticated forms of simulation-based therapy. One example is a new cancer pain project involving VR-assisted “nature walk” narrative therapy. 

“While talking to a psychologist, the patients enter a dream-like virtual setting in which they progress from a rocky beach into a soft, mossy, fern-covered forest. Meanwhile, the therapist talks them through the journey using metaphors of transition, training the limbic system to no longer feel pain,” Browning explains. 

Bottling nature’s balm

State-of-the-art VR technology is being harnessed by Mattias Wallergård, a professor at Lund University, in a series of experiments focusing on elderly groups with limited mobility. The project is part of the pan-European  BlueHealth research initiative. 

“We’re examining whether the health benefits of nature can be ‘bottled up’ and shared with vulnerable groupswho might otherwise have difficulty accessing nature,” says Wallergård.

In one of his earlier experiments, subjects wore headsets to enjoy an immersive virtual experience of walking around in a virtual forest environment. 

“We then measured heart rate, cortisol levels and other stress indicators, and found their stress recovery was significantly faster than that of the control group,” he says. The members of the control group sat down to read a magazine after being exposed to stress rather than being exposed to the virtual forest. 

If, as the results suggest, virtual experiences can confer benefits comparable to being outdoors, there is potentially boundless scope for using VR technology in many healthcare settings. 

“In the future, we can offer even higher fidelity,” Wallergård says. “Already now, the audiovisual effects are so realistic that we observed cross-modality effects. When the participants saw and heard a roaring wave, they felt shivers all over their bodies.”

Multisensory mapping

Blind and partially sighted people are another group who face barriers engaging with nature. Although various assistive technologies are available to support their daily living, less attention is paid to ways of helping them access outdoor spaces. This is partly because open spaces such as parks and woodlands lack the infrastructure that blind people rely on when using a long cane.

“As a result, many of these people don’t often visit open spaces, and when they do, they’re dependent on their sighted companions,” explains Maryam Bandukda, a PhD student at London University College and Global Disability Innovation Hub who is researching nature engagement technologies for blind people. 

“We’re currently producing a multisensory augmented map of London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The map incorporates the experiences and stories of the people who participated in our study. Together they co-created leisure experiences by recording nature sounds and sharing information about particular spaces, such as what to wear, best picnic spots, and wayfinding information,” explains Bandukda.

A digital version of the map will be shared online. Bandukda is additionally working on the design of an auditory augmented reality system to support nature connectedness in people with visual disabilities.

A greener future?

While experts agree that in-person experiences with real-world nature are always preferable, technology can offer a healing substitute, especially for groups who face barriers forging direct ties with nature. 

If nothing else, online experiences from virtual forest bathing to mindful bird listening can yield mood-enhancing benefits to offset the stressful isolation that Covid-19 has brought to many lives.

With VR becoming increasingly mainstream, Browning says there is an unlimited scope for “mixed reality” scenarios. 

“In 20 years, we might all be walking around in an augmented universe with chips embedded in our eyes that transform ugly highways into artificially imposed green spaces,” he speculates.

Written by

Silja Kudel