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Virtual Reality Experiences May Have Mood-Boosting Benefits

virtual reality nature experience

Verywell / Joshua Seong

Key Takeaways

  • While there's no substitute for physically experiencing nature, virtual reality may be a suitable replacement.
  • VR experiences have been shown to have mental health benefits, increasing positivity.
  • If VR is unavailable to you, viewing nature on TV can also help.

There’s something incredibly calming about immersing yourself in nature, breathing in the fresh air around you. Whether it’s a long bike ride, a stroll through your local park, or hiking a beautiful mountain, it’s hard to feel too bad with a lot of flora around you. Unfortunately, with travel extremely limited and short, gray days the norm, frolicking in nature may not be an option for you.

However, that doesn’t mean you’ve lost the mental health benefits of the great outdoors. A new study from the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that people who watched interactive computer-generated virtual reality (CG-VR) experienced a significant increase in positive mental health.

Participants were divided into three categories of nature watching: 2D television, 360-degree video VR (360-VR) viewed via a head-mounted display, and CG-VR via a head-mounted display and using a hand-held controller. A coral reef scene was provided to each person to view or interact with.

“Research has found that simulated nature can provide representative and convincing symbols of nature. This is especially true for new technologies such as interactive virtual reality,” says Dr. Sabrina Romanoff, a Harvard-trained clinical psychologist.

Nature and Mental Health 

Do you know that feeling of being overwhelmed, then stepping outside, taking a long walk outside, and slowly but surely beginning to lighten? There’s something undeniably valuable to your mental state in spending time in nature.

“Nature is a mood booster because it literally changes your body chemistry. Taking in fresh air and exercising increases oxygen, endorphin, and serotonin levels in the brain—leading to positive alterations in mood,” says Romanoff. “Additionally, humans tend to possess an instinctive emotional attachment to other living organisms. These connections are satisfied when immersed in nature.”

In a 2019 study published in Scientific Reports, participants who spent 120 minutes a week or more in nature experienced a higher chance of self-reporting good health and high-well being.

Though researchers studied only 96 adults, mental health experts see similar benefits in experiencing nature through VR. “Being grounded in nature calms us, but many do not have access to natural areas, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Being able to escape from reality and experience nature through VR when it is not possible in real life can be freeing, relieving the stress of everyday life,” says Kathryn Ely, MA, ALC, NCC, a mental health counselor.

It’s not just in your head, nature has shown to help a person’s mental health time and time again. “The actual experience of being immersed in nature strongly modifies neural connections and leads to positive alterations in mood. When this is not available, virtual nature is able to tap into these same mechanisms through analogous visual experiences and memories,” says Romanoff. “Therefore, virtual nature mimics the effects of immersion in physical nature.”

The Benefits of Virtual Nature Interaction

Viewing nature, even without interacting with it, has proven to be beneficial to a person’s mental health in the past. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Clinical Rehabilitation examined the effect of a clear window view on 278 coronary and pulmonary patients in rehabilitation.

Women with a blocked view experienced worse physical health, whereas men in the same position had decreased mental health. An unobstructed view of nature improved patients’ mental health and saw participants more likely to spend time in their room.

Similarly, a 2017 study published in Scientific Reports found that listening to nature sounds such as a burbling brook or wind in the trees can help the body relax.

With less opportunity to stare out a window to see nature in the winter months, virtual reality could supplement the experience.

Kathryn Ely, MA, ALC, NCC

Being grounded in nature calms us, but many do not have access to natural areas, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Being able to escape from reality and experience nature through VR when it is not possible in real life can be freeing, relieving the stress of everyday life.

— Kathryn Ely, MA, ALC, NCC

The Benefits of VR Nature During The Pandemic 

Nature can take you out of your current situation, creating the feeling of being part of something bigger. When so much feels uncontrollable, Ely says experiencing nature through VR presents the opportunity to be reminded of the bigger picture and get out of your head.

“Many individuals have expressed that partaking in such activities inclusive of virtual reality avenues, hikes, and mindful walks help them focus on their breathing and comprehensive wellness,” says Leela R. Magavi, MD, a Hopkins-trained adult, adolescent, and child psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry, California's largest outpatient mental health organization.

From the comfort and safety of your home, VR allows the world to be your oyster. (Seriously, you can see oysters if you choose coral reefs as the type of nature to explore.)

“Virtual reality can allow individuals to engage in mindfulness and divert their attention from anxiety-inducing thoughts and debilitating rumination,” says Magavi. “Virtual reality can help foster creativity and innovative thinking. Furthermore, virtual reality can alleviate anxiety and help individuals remain calm.” Over time, she says, nature VR can have a real improvement in a person’s mental health and mood.

What This Means For You

While CG-VR had the most significant benefit for participants, it may not be accessible for many people. A 360-VR headset may be an option,  but if the price or potential side effects are a deterrent—some people experience nausea—turn on your television. In the study, watching nature on a 2D screen, such as your television or computer, was also shown to decrease boredom and negative effects.

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  1. N.L. Yeo, M.P. White, I. Alcock, R. Garside, S.G. Dean, A.J. Smalley, B. Gatersleben, What is the best way of delivering virtual nature for improving mood? An experimental comparison of high definition TV, 360° video, and computer generated virtual realityJournal of Environmental Psychology. 2020;72:101500. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2020.101500

  2. White MP, Alcock I, Grellier J, et al. Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeingScientific Reports. 2019;9(1):7730. doi:10.1038/s41598-019-44097-3

  3. Raanaas RK, Patil GG, Hartig T. Health benefits of a view of nature through the window: a quasi-experimental study of patients in a residential rehabilitation centerClinical Rehabilitation. Published online August 19, 2011. doi:10.1177/0269215511412800

  4. Gould van Praag, C., Garfinkel, S., Sparasci, O. et al. Mind-wandering and alterations to default mode network connectivity when listening to naturalistic versus artificial soundsSci Rep 7, 45273 (2017). doi:10.1038/srep45273

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