The primal reason you love watching nature documentaries

Jul 27, 2017, 07:00 AM

In order to feel good, humans require interaction with nature. We have a genetically based affiliation with the natural world—a primal desire for the outdoors known as biophilia. This phenomenon describes our urge to connect with other life forms and manifests itself in our love of gardening and camping to owning pets, gifting flowers, and even selecting waterfall wallpapers for our smartphone backgrounds.

The link between the environment and the health of the human mind is a growing subfield of psychology, and research shows clear evidence linking the physical world to the health of our mental world. For example, studies have found that exposure to nature helps reduce our stress levels, restores energy and mental focus, prevents depression, and aids healing of physical ailments, while too little exposure fosters anxiety, despair, numbness, and abstract grief.

But many people don’t have access to these green, feel-good settings. More than half the world’s population currently lives in cities, where it can be hard to access nature in the quantities needed for optimal physical and psychological wellbeing. By 2050, the UN predicts that 70% of Earth’s population will live in urban areas. And with urbanization often comes more environmental destruction, which will only take us further away from the natural world.

In lieu of the real thing, humans are gravitating toward “technological nature”: man-made wildness consumed in the form of nature documentaries, video games, and VR stimulations. There are a growing number of media and technologies that mediate, augment, or simulate the natural world, from dreamy VR video games to 12-hour livestreams of Norwegian tidal currents. But can technological nature have the same benefits as a walk in the woods for ecologically alienated city-dwellers?

In 2008, Peter Kahn, a director of the Human Interaction with Nature and Technological Systems (HINTS) laboratory at the University of Washington and author of Technological Nature: Adaptation and the Future of Human Life, embarked on a project to determine how our proximity to nature affects us. He compared how workers felt in offices either with no window, a window with a view of the outdoors, or a 50-inch plasma-display television ‘‘window’’ streaming a high-definition, real-time view of the outdoors. Surprisingly, he found workers who looked at the plasma windows benefited in terms of their psychological wellbeing and cognitive function, even though the workers knew the scene wasn’t real. The plasma “windows” weren’t as effective as the glass windows facing the trees, of course, but they were significantly better than nothing.

The futuristic concept of choosing to experience nature virtually shouldn’t be too much of a stretch from our current-day behaviors. After all, we already love watching nature on a screen. BBC’s Planet Earth II, which was found to spark joy and lower anxiety in viewers, was the company’s highest performing show of 2016 and was also the most watched nature documentary in the last 15 years. In the gaming world, two of the 2017’s most critically acclaimed games, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn, involve the free exploration of gorgeous forests and mountains; the latter’s environment is even directly inspired by the Planet Earth series.

“Very few people are privileged enough to go and visit the awesome natural sites that inspired the world of Horizon Zero Dawn,” says Jan-Bart van Beek, the studio art director at Guerrilla Games who produced the game. “There aren’t many places featuring raw, untamed wilderness left on Earth anymore. The ones that do exist are often hard to visit but are really breathtaking, tending to fill visitors with a sense of awe and appreciation for the natural world. That’s what we wanted to give to our players: a virtual vacation to a wilder, more beautiful world.” For those who don’t seek adrenaline from nature, other virtual experiences aim to instill a sense of ca...