I’ve written before about the physical and psychological benefits of seeing and spending time in nature. Similarly, I’ve written about some of the barriers that people face in accessing natural settings. Which leads to the question of whether simulated nature has the same benefits as the real thing.
Browning et al (2020) asked this question in a small study with undergraduate students. They compared experiences of 6 minutes in a natural setting to 6 minutes in a 360 VR nature video if the same location. The results were positive with both increasing physiological responses and contributing a restorative feeling. However, real nature improved positive mood levels whereas the simulation did not.
This is important as there are many reasons that someone can’t access nature and could benefit from a simulation. Individuals with severe injuries or health challenges come to mind. However, I think we also need to be cautious about where research like this could lead us. My dystopic brain can see companies where they offer a perk of VR-nature during the workday, but the bigger consequence is potentially a longer workday. Or parents, concerned about safety allow their kids time in nature with VR but not in actual nature. Will we lose incentive to protect nature if we think we don’t need it? Or worse, will events like the transmission of disease from wildlife to humans and the potential for pandemics allow some people to justify the destruction of nature because we can get almost the same benefits from VR?
I’m not saying that nature only has purpose for what was studied here. On the contrary, I believe that nature has extensive intrinsic value, with some pretty major benefits for humans thrown in. But I do have concerns over what could be justified in the future because the benefits are almost the same.