Turning to Technology for Nature Could Help Us Feel More Connected, Experts Say

Taking a virtual tour of a national park or decorating our homes with plants can't replace the health benefits of actually spending time outdoors. But when getting outside isn’t an option, experts say there are benefits to these alternatives.

It’s the photo of the lush forest set as your computer (or Zoom) background. The cool breeze that slips through your window in the evening. The grainy feel of your wood coffee table and the audible purr of your cat, who stretches lazily on the couch beside you.

These are the ways nature can show up indoors. Whether it’s your home’s organic design elements or the technological renderings of nature on your screen, experts say these things can offer some benefits if getting outside isn’t possible.

That’s the case for many right now, as people around the globe stay at home to help slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Government leaders have asked people to stay inside and have limited access to public spaces such as parks, where people have crowded in recent weeks. During this time, some people have turned to screens or their plant collection to keep them centered. It turns out, these indoor and virtual variations of nature could be a way to help people feel more connected and at ease.

Studies have shown that people who have access to technological nature or organic design elements indoors experience less stress, improved mood and increased cognitive function, said Jie Yin, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Environmental Health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Digital nature could also help with feelings of loneliness. A 2018 University of Washington (UW) study showed that university professors who worked in an office with a 50-inch plasma TV that depicted restorative nature scenes—serving, essentially, as a digital window—reported feeling connected to the outdoors and to the wider social community. They also felt less isolated in their offices. When nature is scarce, technological nature, such as a digital window, can benefit people mentally, the study found.

But these findings come with a caveat: Subsequent studies at UW showed that streaming nature on your computer or television can’t replace real outdoor time. That’s partly because there’s no fitness component of watching a livestream on your computer, so you’re not reaping the physical and mental rewards of moving your body, said Peter Kahn, a professor in the UW’s Department of Psychology and School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. The other reason: It’s difficult to replicate the full sensory experience of time outside, where you can hear, smell and see the nature around you.

“I think part of what’s troubling with the tech versions of nature … is so much of the sensory input is diminished, and it’s not real. It’s not life. It’s technology,” Kahn said, adding that he also worries about prescribing people screen time.

But now that people can’t easily get outside, Kahn said there’s an argument for using technological nature.

“I’ve … always said there are contexts of use when [technological nature] is beneficial when people cannot access nature,” he said. “Now COVID-19 comes, and we have a context of use where it’s clearly beneficial.”

As more people hop online for entertainment and stress relief, experts have some advice for getting the most from their nature viewing experience and bringing the outdoors in.

Livestream a place you’ve visited

Picking an exotic park to stream might seem like an adventurous way to digitally explore the outdoors, but if you’re wanting to reap the full mental benefits, Kahn suggests selecting a place you’ve visited or are drawn to for personal reasons.

Though there isn’t specific science to support this tip, Kahn said picking a place that reminds you of a happy moment can spark positive thinking.

“When we’re looking at photos that have meaning and have memories, we are stopping the mind from the negative processing and engaging it with positive processing,” he explained.

Simon Yu, a visiting scholar at Harvard University and associate professor at the School of Forestry and Resource Conservation at National Taiwan University, echoes this sentiment. In a Harvard study in which participants were each shown images of a waterfront, a forest and a field, their preferences for a certain image varied based on their individual experiences. Yu says this suggests what a person finds relaxing is personal.

Kahn says it could take a bit of trial and error to find a digital experience that feels right for you. So, if a certain livestream isn’t providing the relaxation you expect, try switching it up.

Get in the zone

If you stream sounds of nature only to multitask while reading the news or cycling through stressful thoughts, it could get in the way of your reaping the benefits. Yu suggests silencing your phone, turning off the news and focusing in on what you’re doing when enjoying nature indoors.

“It’s important to replicate not just nature, but what you would be doing in nature, so focusing on it instead of other things,” he said.

Some people can achieve this by treating their indoor nature time like meditation, Yu said. They can close their eyes or simply focus their gaze on what they’re watching. It’s also possible to simply stream nature sounds as background noise while doing other activities, as long as those won’t detract from the experience. Yu said this can vary by person.

If possible, choose something local

Similar to Kahn’s tip about picking a place you’ve visited, consider streaming a spot local to where you live, if possible.

“Most of us are interested in what’s happening ‘here,’ and that’s because from an evolutionary standpoint … it’s what matters for wellbeing and survival,” he said.

Local doesn’t have to mean the park down the street or even within your city (this kind of digital experience may not be available depending on where you live). A place located within your time zone counts. Kahn said watching a livestream of something happening in your region of the country reinforces feelings of connectedness because you can relate in some way to what you’re seeing. For instance, in the UW study where professors were given a television that depicted real-time nature scenes, they felt connected to the outside world, knowing that they were watching events taking place outside their offices, Kahn said.

So, if you’re watching a livestream of a sunset in a national park and the sun is also setting outside your window, you may be more likely to feel a connection to what you’re watching. Conversely, if you’re watching the sun set on the other side of the world in a different time zone, it may not resonate with you as much. Knowing that what you’re seeing is also happening where you live can increase feelings of connectedness.

Bring nature indoors

In a 2019 Harvard University experiment, researchers tested how well people recovered from stressor tests when placed in an office designed with natural features compared to being placed in a room that lacked those elements. The results: Participants in the natural environments recovered better, in terms of reduction in their stress and anxiety.

To introduce additional green to your space, consider adding a few indoor houseplants to the room you spend most of your time. If it’s possible, position your furniture to look out a window at natural scenery. It’s also helpful to decorate with natural materials, when possible. Even touching wood—raw wood, in particular—can provide that connection to the natural world, according to a 2019 study by the School of Forestry and Resource Conservation at National Taiwan University.

[Read more: Hospitals Find Gardens Help with Healing]

Know that every experience is unique

With nearly every suggestion about reaping rewards from digital or indoor nature, experts like Yu and Kahn provide a caveat: Experiences can vary by person. Everyone will have to try different approaches and be attuned to what works for them, Kahn said. It’s about turning on a livestream, flipping through some photographs or bringing a few pieces of nature indoors and reflecting on what works and what doesn’t.

It’s not so different from the way outdoor enthusiasts find solace in different activities in the outdoor world: It’s about finding what works for you.

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