Stressed or tired after a long day? Listening to nature might help you feel better. Take part in a ten minute experiment to help researchers understand how people respond to the sounds of the natural world.
The Forest 404 Experiment explores how people respond to the sounds of nature.
The drama’s main character, Pan, works in a data library where she archives audio recordings from the 21st century. One day she stumbles upon a recording of a rainforest and begins a quest to understand its origin and meaning.
Does your phone wallpaper/screensaver show a picture of nature?
When I give talks about how our love of nature intertwines with our love of technology, I often ask the audience to put up their hands if they have a nature photo on their screensavers or wallpapers. Usually, at least half of them do.
I’m not surprised by that. Environmental psychology research has shown over and over again that just looking at pictures of nature such as photos, paintings, and videos can slow the heartbeat and reduce stress and anxiety. Of course, nothing beats the real thing, but images come a very close second.
Last weekend I wondered how a quick random Twitter poll would answer a similar question – ‘Does your phone wallpaper/screensaver show a picture of nature?’. 59 people responded, of whom 68% said Yes and 32% said No.(Results) Those numbers roughly match what my live audiences say. I didn’t ask, however, exactly what aspects of nature those pictures portrayed. There may have been some trees, perhaps? As in Flatland, a new live wallpaper from Maxelus which animals and birds stroll across your screen.
If you’re feeling stressed, seek out some trees
Coincidentally, some interesting research popped into my inbox today (thanks @danfoxdavies) which adds an extra dimension to the screensaver thing. Scholars at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and the University of Hong Kong have shown that not only do pictures and videos of trees reduce stress, but the density of trees is also important. They call it a ‘dose’, as in a dose of medicine, and ask which is more calming – viewing a single tree or a number of trees?
In a carefully designed experiment, they worked with 160 participants in a four stage exercise.
The participants underwent a series of tests designed to induce psychological stress. The tests included 3 minutes to prepare a public speech, a 5-minute public speech, and a 5-minute subtraction task performed in front of two interviewers and a video camera, and completed without paper and pencil or a calculator. To increase stress levels, participants were told that their performance would be recorded and assessed later, but actually no video recording was made. During the tests, they were asked to report on their stress levels several times.
The participants then viewed specially recorded 6 minute videos of varying kinds of landscapes.
Then they undertook the stress tests again.
Finally, they were given 15 minutes to write about how they had felt during the experiment.
The researchers analysed the resulting texts and identified keywords. For example, keywords used in the final piece of writing included “relaxing, calming, tranquil, at ease, comfortable, peaceful, serene, settled, safe, quite, a reprieve, mesmerizing, soothing, pleasant, unrushed, undisturbed, enjoyable, worry-free”.
They concluded that the percentage of people using keywords indicating stress recovery increases as the density of tree cover increases. At the lowest level of tree density, only 41% of participants reported a calming
effect but as tree cover density reached 36%, more than 90% of participants reported a stress recovery experience.
The team concluded that there is “a positive, linear association between the density of urban street trees and self-reported stress recovery”. In other words, if you’re feeling stressed, hang out in a place where there are lots of trees, and you’ll probably be able to relax.
One possible explanation for the fact that we feel better around trees is Gordon Orians’ Savanna Hypothesis, which argues that since humans originated from the African savanna where groups of trees like the acacias pictured below provided shelter and resources. Some deep ancient memory reassures us they offer safety.
Another reason could be that trees help us relax. Forest bathing or shinrin-yoku, involves walking or resting in a forest, breathing in the healing aromas of the trees and tuning into the abundant life around you.
The practice has been widely-researched in Japan, where a recent journal paper described an experiment with 19 middle-aged men suffering from high-blood pressure who were asked to take 80 minute forest walks on two weekends. Researchers said the activity “significantly reduced pulse rate, and significantly increased the score for vigor and decreased the scores for depression, fatigue, anxiety and confusion”.
Needless to say, forest bathing cannot really be undertaken in the sensory-deprived digital environment, at least not yet, but perhaps an image of forests might produce a sympathetic physiological nearby nature response? And, perhaps one day soon, we may even be able to produce virtual aromas to match.
Nearby nature on your screen
Nearby nature involves small suggestions of the natural world which, although seemingly insignificant and often out of physical reach, can play a powerful role in human well-being. People with access to nearby natural settings have been found to be healthier than those without, and often experience increased levels of satisfaction with their home, job, and life in general.
So, to wrap up, if you want some nature on your screensaver, consider trees.
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be a dragonfly flitting through the forest canopy, this virtual reality installation by Marshmallow Laser Feast (MLF) is your answer. Through the imaginations of MLF, the forest becomes a dancing stream of bright colors that twist by as you fly by. The virtual reality experience allows users to see the forest as an alien world – first through the eyes of a midge, then a dragonfly, then a frog and finally an owl.
This new commission enables audiences to encounter England’s forests anew through an immersive virtual reality experience, told by the inhabitants of the forest. A 360º film, it is an artistic interpretation of the sensory perspectives of three species natural to the site.
Creative collective Marshmallow Laser Feast (MLF) delight in exploring the line between virtual and real-world experiences. In this work they use the mask of virtual reality to explore different perspectives of familiar landscapes. Through observing the function of animal sight – a dragonfly experiences life over 10 times faster than a human and in 12 colour wavelengths (a human in a combination of three) – the film & accompanying soundtrack are a speculation of an alternative reality.
The forest & animals were captured using techniques such as lidar & CT scanning, photogrammetry and a bespoke-built 360º aerial camera. Footage was processed using custom software to create the landscapes explored in the work. The film is set to a binaural soundtrack using audio recordings sourced from the surrounding woodland.
Commissioned by Abandon Normal Devices and Forestry Commission England’s Forest Art Works. Produced by Abandon Normal Devices and Marshmallow Laser Feast. Supported using public funding by Arts Council England and Forestry Commission England.
Come and immerse yourself, tread carefully and step into the sensory world of the creatures. From the forest floor to the tops of the trees, come and observe through the eyes of the animal.