A recent study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology indicates that spacious natural landscapes can enhance feelings of selflessness, connectedness, and boost positive emotions. The research, conducted using immersive virtual reality technology, found that participants felt a diminished sense of body boundaries, leading to increased selflessness.
Mental health issues, such as stress, anxiety, and depression, are on the rise globally. Understanding how nature can contribute to alleviating these conditions is of paramount importance, especially in a world where many people live in urbanized, high-stress environments.
“Rumination, excessive worrying, not being able to stop worrying: these are things I get back from a lot of people/students, and I’m also myself struggling with that from time to time,” said study author Thomas J.L. van Rompay, an associate professor at the University of Twente.
Nature has long been celebrated for its soothing and restorative qualities, but the precise mechanisms behind these effects have remained a subject of scientific inquiry. Researchers have sought to understand how different aspects of natural settings influence our mental state and overall well-being.
Previous studies have explored the concept of awe—a profound emotional experience often associated with nature—and its potential benefits, such as increased feelings of selflessness and connectedness. However, many of these studies focused on iconic natural wonders like the Grand Canyon, leaving questions about the effects of more common natural settings unanswered.
The researchers sought to explore how different aspects of nature could influence our emotional state and connectedness with the world around us. They were particularly interested in understanding the role of spaciousness in natural environments.
Van Rompay and his colleagues designed an experiment that combined the power of immersive virtual reality (VR) with insights from psychology and environmental science. The study involved 80 participants, primarily students, who were invited to explore virtual natural environments created by the researchers.
The participants were divided into four groups, each experiencing a different combination of spaciousness and nature type. Some explored dense natural landscapes, while others ventured into spacious ones. Additionally, the researchers considered two types of nature settings: tended and wild. The tended landscapes featured signs of human intervention, such as paths, while the wild ones remained untouched by human hands.
Each participant’s journey into these virtual landscapes was meticulously crafted to maintain a sense of realism and immersion. The researchers measured various aspects of the participants’ mental well-being to gauge the impact of spaciousness and nature type.
Participants in the spacious condition experienced a reduction in the salience of their perceived body boundaries. Participants also reported a greater sense of selflessness (e.g. “I felt my sense of self shrink”) when immersed in spacious natural environments compared to dense ones.
Importantly, perceived body boundaries fully accounted for the effect of spaciousness on selflessness. In other words, feeling that their body boundaries are less distinct or more integrated with the environment is the reason why the participants exhibited greater selflessness in spaciousness settings.
Van Rompay told PsyPost he was surprised to observe “the connection between a very abstract notion (loss of self, selflessness) and its grounding in a very concrete bodily sensation.”
Similar to selflessness, participants also reported feeling more connected in general (“I had the sense of being connected to everything”) and more connected to their community after being immersed in spacious environments.
Stress levels significantly decreased after participants experienced VR nature exposure in both spacious and dense conditions. However, stress reduction was more pronounced in spacious settings, indicating the potential of open landscapes to reduce stress.
Anxiety levels were notably lower in the spacious condition compared to the dense condition. Furthermore, in tended, human-managed nature settings, anxiety was lower compared to wild, untouched landscapes. This finding highlights the potential of both spaciousness and human interventions in natural environments to reduce anxiety. Participants also reported higher levels of positive emotions in spacious nature environments compared to dense ones.
The findings provide evidence “that there are ‘easy’ things that can be done to get out of that mental prison; going outside and seeking out a spacious setting (open field, large water surface) is one of them,” van Rompay said.
Moreover, the study demonstrates the value of virtual reality technology in providing immersive nature experiences, particularly for those who may have limited access to wide open spaces. Virtual reality could help to bridge the gap between urban living and the natural world, offering opportunities for relaxation, stress reduction, and emotional well-being.
However, the study also has some limitations to consider, such as the relatively small sample size. In addition, the use of virtual reality, while innovative, cannot fully replicate the complexity and sensory richness of real-life natural environments. Future research could explore these effects in more diverse and realistic settings to provide a comprehensive understanding of the relationship between spaciousness and well-being.
“I feel that interventions such as these can not only keep us sane (in terms of mental health), but they can also strengthen our connection to nature and in doing so make us care for the environment and for the health of our planet in general,” van Rompay added.
The study, “Lose yourself: Spacious nature and the connected self“, was authored by Thomas J.L. van Rompay, Sandra Oran, Mirjam Galetzka, and Agnes E. van den Berg.