Can you trick your brain into imagining virtual nature is real?
We have evolved from nature, among nature and with nature. Yet, as technology permeates into our lives, it is beginning to compete with nature.
The dawn and dusk we’ve evolved to set our body clocks by have been replaced by LED lights that we manipulate on command. Climate control has created an illusion of climate constancy. We no longer train muscles by hunting for prey - we make do with static bioelectric stimulation instead, while lying in bed watching the NatGeo channel.
If your brain doesn't perceive what it expects, it gets stressed.
A lingering problem in this competition between technology and nature is the brain can become confused by a mismatch between what it has learned to expect from nature and what it encounters in a simulation of nature.
A mismatch like this can cause stress.
One example is blue light. Blue light is not prevalent during the night. By using smart technology with blue light-emitting screens, we interfere with the brain’s perception of the boundary between day and night. This confuses our biorhythms and has implications on metabolism, immune health, brain health and beyond.
The trick with technology is to try to keep within the boundaries of the brain’s perceptual confusion.
In line with this, there is emerging evidence that some nature-related interventions can have a calming effect without confusing the brain, even if the intervention is out-of-place or out-of-context.
Nature "knock-offs" can mimic the real thing
A randomized crossover study has shown people recover faster from an acutely stressful experience if they have been looking at pictures of nature beforehand, even if they’re in a concrete room.
Another study has shown how listening to ocean waves for just seven minutes in the middle of a waiting room far away from a real ocean has a calming effect, when compared to listening to other sounds or calming music.
There is also evidence that smelling certain scents – such as a citrus scent -- can make us calmer, even if we’re surrounded by concrete and artificial light.
Enter Virtual Reality
The immersive experience of Virtual Reality can simulate nature to a striking degree as it combines these sights and sounds in three-dimensions, reducing the mismatch between the brain’s expectation and perception.
And perhaps even more significant -- without the need for imagination.
The “effort” of imagination tells your brain something isn’t real as you’re having to work hard to "imagine" it.
In Virtual Reality, you are immersed into an alternative 3-D reality with the sights, sounds and movement of your existing reality, without the need for effortful imagination.
There is, however, still some way to go in reducing the brain's expectation-perception mismatch, as the phenomenon of “uncanny valley” demonstrates.
"Uncanny valley" is when you feel something is real but “not quite right”, as might happen when you look at a computer-generated image of a human that looks impeccably real, but something about it makes you feel uncomfortable.
The future of "nature" technology
As technology progresses, virtual reality may meander beyond sight and sound and incorporate scents and even tactile stimuli. We might see a virtual reality ‘nature room’ incorporated as standard practice in workplaces and homes. Hospital waiting rooms can become havens of tranquillity and patients about to undergo surgery might one day imagine they are being treated by a waterfall on an exotic island.
Spending some time surrounded by nature at least once a day is a potent stress antidote that costs nothing, is within easy reach and has an instant effect. It is likely to make you calmer, cope better with stress and lift your mood.
You can take a walk down to your local park --- or, if you prefer, do it with a pair of earphones, a bowl of lemons and some virtual reality goggles...