I am excited that the most recent episode of The Big Bang Theory (s. 9, ep. 20) highlighted some science about the health benefits of spending time in nature. It starts off with Sheldon wearing a virtual reality headset to spend time in a fabricated nature in order to get the brain-boosting benefits and hesitant to go experience real nature because of the “mosquitoes, bees, bears, snakes, possums, poison oak, and … teenagers with guitars.”
As virtual reality technology grows, is it possible that people may actually choose to go this route? I have trouble imagining it, but it seems plausible. My cell phone came pre-programmed with tracks of nature sounds. There are also entire TV channels showing documentaries of cheetahs and lemurs living in places on the other side of the planetand amazing IMAX movies that take you under the sea. People are already working to one step further and allow people to experience three-dimensional vitual nature from remote stations near the North Pole and eventually even space. Here’s a sample video:
In this instance, the virtual reality is intended to help boost moods of people who are deprived of the opportunity for experiencing pleasant outdoor environments. Photographs and video displays of nature scenes have been shown to improve people’s moods and help reduce stress. But, at the same time, windows that allow people to see the outdoors directly consistently have greater health benefits. Real nature has big benefits better, even if the greenery isn’t the most idyllic scene you’ve ever seen.
Technology allows us to create an Instagram world full of beautiful images that have been filtered and edited beyond anything that we are ever likely to see in the real world. Certainly it is wonderful art, but it may not help people establish realistic and meaningful connections with the nature that we can see in everyday life.
Fake nature, even it it’s most dazzling forms, will always be lacking something. The richness and depth experience will always be muted. Perhaps some sounds and smells can be wrapped into the virtual experience, but the ability to interact will be limited. There won’t be the opportunity to pick up a unique rock that no one else has ever seen before and put it in your pocket. Or eat carrots freshly pulled from the soil, dirt and all. Or have the opportunity to discover a completely new species of life.
Let’s not mistake our screensavers of scenic mountain vistas for the real thing. We need messy nature full of mosquitoes and possums too.