How many degrees of emotional separation are there between Real and Virtual Nature?

How many degrees of emotional separation are there between Real and Virtual Nature?

by Eleonora Diletta Sarcinella,
Alice Chirico
& Andrea Gaggioli

Experience Lab, Università Cattolica di Milano, Italy

What are the differences between specific nature experiences in VR and their real-world equivalents? Exposure to nature can be magical: it reduces anxiety, depression and dementia symptoms.1-7 Nature experiences in VR offer an unparalleled opportunity to access nature in a controlled environment, allowing a high sense of presence and therapeutic benefits.

If you were to claim that virtual nature has effects similar to in-person nature experiences, what would you say? Well, there are: evoking qualities of restoration, stress reduction, intrigue, awe, and spirituality. Virtual environments don’t replace real nature, but they can complement it, motivate people to enjoy nature outdoors8, and increase feelings of togetherness and connection. Virtual reality shows the crucial importance of emotional dimensions13: the more we are involved in the simulated scenarios, the greater the intensity of emotions felt. All these effects on health, both physical and mental, could promote the concept of natural intelligence, which poses an effective connection with nature as a core quality of this century. However, the extent to which real and virtual nature can be similar at the emotional level, is still an open issue. Specifically, researchers have often investigated the association between real or virtual nature exposure and general affect.9-12 We are still exploring how virtual nature can elicit peculiar emotional states, such as aesthetic emotions, usually associated with real nature.

As part of this study, we asked ourselves: how does natural landscape differ from a virtual one? Take a moment to think about it. Answer this question and imagine yourself in this situation.

Imagine walking in a comfortable green landscape near a lake. As you make your way down the path, the sound of leaves rustling underfoot and the chirping of birds fills the air. The scent of earth wafts around you, a refreshing respite from the hustle and bustle of city living.

Beneath the towering trees, sunlight filters through the branches, creating a dappled effect on the floor. Shafts of light illuminate patches of wildflowers and ferns, adding to the vibrant palette of greens, yellows, and purples that surround you. As the path winds on, it leads you to the edge of a crystal clear lake, opened up suddenly in a serene and tranquil view. It’s a small, secluded spot, away from the noise and bustle of crowds. You can smell the cool, fresh scent of the water mixed with that of the nearby trees. It’s a place where nature reigns supreme, where sunshine dances, and where the breeze carries away your worries. A place where you can rest, revive, and retreat from reality, basking in the glory of nature’s loveliness.

Panorama of the Real Nature (Reserve of Verbania, Piedmont).

Panorama of the Real Nature (Reserve of Verbania, Piedmont).

Now imagine experiencing this vision within virtual reality. This is where you experience the above environment in a neutral place, without sound, at ease, sitting comfortably in a chair. How many degrees of emotional separation do you imagine between the real and virtual natures?

In this research, we involved 16 healthy volunteers between 19 and 30 to find out. Participants were randomly assigned to the following conditions: some viewed the described environment first in virtual reality and later in life, and others in reverse. Participants were randomly assigned to the following conditions: some viewed the described environment first in virtual reality and later live, and others in reverse. We asked them, through tests, how they experienced positive emotions and aesthetic interest. Lastly, we asked them about their connection to nature and involvement with beauty, whether it be natural, artistic, or moral.

Participants were asked to report their emotional states before and after each exposure. Then, participants in the Real condition were invited to reach the same place shown in the Virtual condition. They were also invited to look at the panorama and surroundings. The exposure took between 5 and 10 minutes. Participants in the virtual condition underwent the same procedure but stayed in a neutral room before wearing the headset. Participants were asked to wear a Head Mounted Display using their own mobile phones to access the 360° video. They were given standardized instructions on starting the video (5-10 minutes in length) using this VR device. At the end of both conditions, participants were required to self-report their emotions and nature-relatedness (or connectedness) after each nature exposure.

As young explorers soak in the wonder of their latest discovery, we too wonder what has happened and what we have discovered. In this study, it emerged that the emotional profiles of the same natural environment presented in vivo or in virtuo were similar. However, they differed except for a combination of aesthetic and emotional states such as nostalgia and animation emotions. Nostalgia contains both pleasant and unpleasant components. Animation emotions, such as being moved, stimulate action. The results of this pilot study suggest that the state of feeling present within the simulated environment in VR is potentially helpful in decreasing people’s anxious aspects. There is still room for work in this Virtual Emotions field: How do we measure emotional states in simulated environments? Can we distinguish “true” feelings from those “recognized” in VR?

Virtual nature is a method for relaxation through scientific research. It is necessary, however, to deepen our analysis of reality vs. virtual reality’s mixed emotions. There is still much to be done and investigated. But we are already well on our way. What do you think?


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