A recent study has determined that watching nature programming on TV or via a virtual-reality headset reduces feelings of sadness and boredom. According to researchers from the University of Exeter, scenes of nature soothe us – whether they are real video footage of a coral reef, to use the study’s example, or even just computer-generated graphics of the same.
“Our results show that simply watching nature on TV can help to lift people’s mood and combat boredom,” lead researcher Nicky Yeo said in a news release. “With people around the world facing limited access to outdoor environments because of Covid-19 quarantines, this study suggests that nature programs might offer an accessible way for populations to benefit from a ‘dose’ of digital nature.”
This conclusion doesn’t surprise me. Humans have an innate affiliation for nature known as “biophilia,” a concept the American biologist Edward O Wilson described as “the rich, natural pleasure that comes from being surrounded by living organisms.” The restorative qualities nature has on the human body and mind have been observed for centuries. Previous studies have corroborated the hypothesis that digitally-mediated nature appeals to our biophilia by simulating the real thing. In 2017, researchers working with the BBC found that watching clips from the documentary Planet Earth II decreased viewer’s anxiety. Another study found that watching nature documentaries eased aggression in inmates of a maximum-security prison.
Of course, there’s a crucial caveat to all of this: while watching nature videos makes us feel better, it can’t really replace the benefits we get from actual nature.
In 2017, I spoke to Dr Peter Kahn, a psychology professor and director of the Human Interaction With Nature and Technological Systems Lab at the University of Washington, for the publication Quartz. He made the point that the benefits humans get from digital nature are contingent on us having some firsthand context for what we’re watching.
“Teenagers who have grown up in urban areas can put on a VR headset and get some small awareness of a wild place, but that visual awareness is severed from the meaning of interacting with that place,” he said. “As children grow up in less natured areas, they have fewer experiences with actual nature, and so when they then experience a technological version of nature, they have less to map it onto. In this way, the physical and psychological benefits we’re seeing of technological nature in this generation will likely diminish in the generations ahead.”
For many people, access to wild places is an increasingly rare privilege. By 2050, almost 70% of Earth’s population will live in urban areas, according to the UN. Technologically simulated nature may be a useful and even necessary tool to provide urban inhabitants with the psychological wellbeing they otherwise might not be able to access. And – as we’re learning now, with much of the world in lockdown – “digital nature” is better than nothing.
Yet technology cannot replace having experiences in actual nature. Nor can technology really mitigate the risk of long-term alienation from the natural world, especially if all we’re consuming are anodyne video clips of cute creatures in serene settings.
The kinds of nature documentaries that are probably most beneficial to the viewer are not particularly soothing. They present an honest portrait of the destruction humans have wrought on the Earth, and what’s at stake unless we change.
David Attenborough’s new Netflix documentary A Life on Our Planet is one such film. Watching it did not quell my anxiety (rather, the opposite) but it did feed the flames of my environmentalism. I’m not arguing that nature documentaries ought to make us hopeless and despondent; but they shouldn’t bowdlerize the state of our planet to fulfill our longing for a moment’s peace.