When Technological Nature Is Just as Good as, Well, Nature

Watching nature videos should become your new stress ball substitute.

by Kastalia Medrano
Getty Images / VCG

Can we trick our brains into thinking we’re outside?

The benefits of getting yourself a big ol’ dose of nature are well-documented. Hiking in the woods, taking a walk around the block, even just gazing out the window from time to time can lower your stress and improve your overall mood. It can even help ease physical symptoms, like blood pressure. This isn’t the case for every single person out there, but it holds broadly true.

So what happens when we’re exposed not to nature, but to a digital representation of nature? The results of a research project released Friday detail how watching nature videos helped curb incidents of violence among inmates at an Oregon supermax. Dr. Patricia Hasbach, the clinical psychotherapist who presented the research, picked an especially intriguing term to describe the imagery: technological nature.

There aren’t very many situations in which one is more completely deprived of contact with the natural world than solitary confinement in a maximum-security prison. Hasbach personally conducted one-on-one case study interviews with six inmates and found the results they reported promising. Of the total inmates surveyed, 91 percent said they felt calmer after watching the videos. Crucially, of those inmates, a further 80 percent said they were able to retain that feeling for several hours after the videos ended, and were better able to self-regulate their emotions.

“This is no substitution for the real thing,” Hasbach said. “But it’s a good augmentation. For places like [solitary confinement], hospitals, or assisted-living centers, any situation where direct contact with real nature isn’t possible, there’s a benefit to technological nature.”

As animal-focused live cams become increasingly popular, it’s interesting to consider their mental-health implications for those who don’t have access to a handy national park, but do have access to the internet. Most of us will never experience solitary confinement or the kind of extreme nature-deprivation Hasbach’s subject had to reckon with, but the general white-collar civilian population does spend an awful lot of time looking at a screen rather than out a window. Just last month, researchers from Kansas State University began studying the emotional responses of those who watched a popular “bearcam,” and going forward will compare the responses to those of people who got to watch the bears in person.

In the wake of Hasbach’s experiment, officers started to use the videos as an intervention practice — when they noticed agitated behavior from inmates, anything that could indicate a gathering storm — they’d offer time in the “Blue Room” which, in addition to other outlets like exercise, helped calm them. Both the officers and the inmates saw benefits. Nature, it seems, doesn’t discriminate in its calming powers.

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