Visual Access to Nature: Real and Perceived

Visual Access to Nature: Real and Perceived

Plato's Allegory of a Cave describes a scene in which people sit in a cave, watching shadows on a wall, unaware that what they see is not reality. Only a few escape and see the real sun, and experience its light. In what some researchers call the "shifting baseline," there is growing concern that as we fundamentally alter our environment, our sense of the natural world is dulled. The potential psychological impact of this problem is beginning to be explored.

In 1984, Roger Ulrich published the canonical study showing the healing power of nature in the hospital. 46 patients were divided into pairs, with a set of patients looking onto a brick wall or a grove of trees. The study then compared patients' records, finding that all 23 patients with a tree view required less pain medication, complained less and left the hospital almost one day sooner than the twenty three patients with a brick wall view.

ince then our world has been increasingly saturated with images and proliferated by digital screens. A Kliener Perkins Caufield & Byers's annual Internet Trends report showed that people check their phones 150 times a day. With screens absorbing so much of our everyday attention, it seems fair to ask: Is a garden really necessary or would a digital image of a natural space suffice?

Luckily, this question has already been asked by researchers and their probe has come up with some answers. Ninety participants were organized into three groups balanced by gender and tested in three office conditions. One with a view through a window, one with the same view in a plasma screen and the third with a view of a blank wall. The lighting was kept congruent throughout the experiement, and participants completed four tasks. Using a camera, the frequency of looks at the window and plasma screen were recorded. The results showed that participants looked out of the glass window just as often as the plasma window, but with less duration of looking time. The heart rate of participants decreased more the more that they looked out the glass window, but no such relationship was found for either the plasma window or the blank wall.

So what is it about the natural view through the glass window that is so relaxing and might distinguish it from the plasma screen? Daylight and 3D depth perception are two possibilities, but the researchers suspect a more complex difference: that viewers judgement of whether a scene is "real" or "represented" has a specific physiological and psychological feedback.

It's a win for designers of places!