Technology may have improved our quality of life, but it has also moved us away from the benefits of exposure to real nature in terms of relieving low-level stress, says a new study. The new study, led by University of Washington scientists, measured individuals' heart recovery rate from minor stress when exposed to a natural scene through a window, the same scene shown on a high-definition plasma screen, or a blank wall.
The heart rate of people who looked at the scene through the window dropped more quickly than the others. In fact, the high-definition plasma screen had no more effect than the blank wall.
It showed that when people spent more time looking at the natural scene their heart rates tended to decrease more. That was not the case with the plasma screen.
"Technology is good and it can help our lives, but let's not be fooled into thinking we can live without nature," said lead researcher Peter Kahn, a UW associate professor of psychology.
"We are losing direct experiences with nature. Instead, more and more we're experiencing nature represented technologically through television and other media.
"Children grow up watching Discovery Channel and Animal Planet. That's probably better than nothing. But as a species we need interaction with actual nature for our physical and psychological well-being," he added.
This problem of environmental generational amnesia is particularly important for children coming of age with current technologies," said Rachel Severson, a co-author of the study and a UW psychology doctoral student.
"Children may not realize they are not getting the benefits of actual nature when interacting with what we're calling technological nature."
During the study, the researchers recruited 90 college students to participate in an experiment that had them work on four mental tasks while sitting at a desk in an office.
Thirty students faced a window overlooking a campus scene that included a large fountain and trees. The second group of 30 students were exposed to plasma screen that showed the same nature scene in real time. For the remaining 30 students, curtains covered the plasma screen and the desk faced a blank wall.
The participants were hooked up to a heart rate monitor. A camera mounted on the wall near the window or plasma screen was synchronized with the heart monitor and tracked participants' eye movements.
The researchers found that participants with the plasma screen actually looked at it just as often as did those who had the window. However, the window held the students' attention significantly longer than the plasma screen did.
"I was surprised by this. I thought the plasma screen would come somewhere between the glass window and the blank wall, said Kahn.
"This study is important because it shows the importance of nature in human lives and at least one limitation of technological nature.
"In the years ahead, technological nature will get more sophisticated and compelling. But if it continues to replace our interaction with actual nature, it will come at a cost. To thrive as a species, we still need to interact with nature by encountering an animal in the wild, walking along the ocean's edge or sleeping under the enormity of the night sky," he added.