Real and virtual nature for mental health promotion

Real and virtual nature for mental health promotion

by Luca Bernardelli


Abstract Special conditions such as disability or long periods of hospitalization, or some ordinary situations such as work commitments or family duties, may hinder or even preclude a return to nature. In this context, digital devices and services could be skillfully designed and used to facilitate access to naturalistic environments.


Real and virtual nature for mental health promotion



Nature and mental health

The increasing urbanization and digitalization of society, intensified and accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, has triggered a progressive and increasingly rapid departure from nature. In this context, it is interesting to note how scientific research has been increasingly working to study and clarify the relationship between exposure to natural environments and people’s health.

A recent review by Jimenez and colleagues (2021), which systematized the main findings from studies conducted between 2010 and 2020, indicates the main effects of nature on individuals’ health and well-being. Alongside the benefits to the body – such as reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and improved sleep, natural environments appear to play a protective role toward mental health and cognitive function – for example, by promoting stress reduction, alleviating anxiety and depression and improving mood, enhancing attention and executive functions. In developmental age, contact with nature not only brings immediate benefits – such as improving mental well-being, general health and cognitive development, enhancing social-emotional skills and reducing the risk of autism in preschool, and alleviating psychological distress in adolescence -, but appears to play a long-term protective role, promoting better mental health in adulthood.

Investigating the relationship between exposure to natural environments and mental health, many authors have delved into the experience of awe.



Nature and mental health: the experience of awe

The term “awe” refers to a complex emotion, which is elicited by boundless stimuli, vast in comparison to the physical or social self – such as a vast landscape or important ideas and theories -, in front of which emerges the need to modify one’s cognitive schemas to adapt to new situations. This emotion, which is complex and multidimensional – including feelings of wonder, joy, reverence, fear…- configures a self-transcendent experience, involving, on the one hand, a feeling of small-self vis-à-vis the stimulus and, on the other hand, a deep connection with the surrounding: therefor, the feeling of smallness and insignificance, is accompanied by a greater predisposition to prosocial behavior, attitudes of humility and team spirit (Liu et al, 2023; Yaden et al., 2017; Chirico et al., 2023).

The experience of awe, which is more intense when elicited by natural stimuli, appears to be associated with a sense of satisfaction with one’s life, mitigation of the negative effects of losses, and a reduction in daily stress and related symptoms (Liu et al., 2023).

In an attempt to understand this association, the authors highlighted several possible underlying mechanisms. First, when confronted with awe-inspiring stimuli, people seem to perceive an expansion of time: they feel they have more time available, they experience a reduced sense of impatience, a greater desire to engage in volunteering and to invest in experiences rather than material goods, and they seem more satisfied with their lives. In addition, these types of experiences trigger a downsizing of the sense of self, which seems to shrink: although this phenomenon may apparently have negative consequences, it may be have positive effects if it configures an opportunity to look at one’s existence from another perspective. Some authors, then, argue that the small-self effect is due to the perception of the vastness of the stimulus, which causes a reduction in daily concerns and a resulting intensification of the sense of satisfaction with one’s life. More recently, it has been hypothesized that positive feelings of awe elicited by natural stimuli can strengthen the connectedness with nature – which is a psychological bonding at the affective and cognitive levels – which, in turn, is associated with feelings of happiness and well-being, as well as pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors (Liu et al., 2023; Rudd, Vohs & Aaker, 2012; Rivera, Vess, Hicks, Routledge, 2020; Bai et al., 2021).

If the mechanisms described may help to explain how exposure to certain natural stimuli can promote people’s mental health and well-being, it is interesting to observe that the positive experience of awe is also able to promote the translation of emotions into concrete pro-environmental actions: the self-concept, which is shrunken, is also broadened to include nature and the surrounding environment, stimulating prosocial beliefs, attitudes and intentions. Since, according to the Appraisal-Tendency Framework, the new cognitive schemas promoted by self-transcendent emotions persist beyond the original stimuli, influencing people’s subsequent behaviors, these changes can result in a healthy and authentic relationship with nature (Sarcinella et al., 2024, Chirico et al., 2023; Lerner & Keltner, 2000; Lerner & Tiedens, 2006).

Natural experiences bring with it unequivocal benefits for people’s health and well-being and greater involvement in pro-environmental actions. However, sometimes, it could be difficult or impossible to access to natural environments.


Nature and technology

Special conditions such as disability or long periods of hospitalization, or some ordinary situations such as work commitments or family duties, may hinder or even preclude a return to nature. In this context, digital devices and services could be skillfully designed and used to facilitate access to naturalistic environments (Chirico et al., 2023).

In particular, Virtual Reality is gaining great interest from researchers. Indeed, this technology is able to transport a subject into a computer-generated environment, within which he or she has the ability to move around and, in some cases, interact with the scenario. Immersiveness – that is, the degree to which the user is isolated from the real world during the virtual experience – and a sense of presence – that is, the feeling of actually being in that place – make the experience particularly immersive and realistic. A growing body of research suggests that virtual natural environments can offer psychological benefits comparable to those promoted by real nature: including stress reduction, improved mood and affective state, and true awe experiences that are more intense than those generated by 2D images and videos. These early results seem to point to Virtual Reality as a possible therapeutic tool in situations where access to nature is limited (Chirico et al., 2017; Riva, Davide, & IJsselsteijn, 2003; Riva, 2022; Malighetti; Sarcinella et al., 2024; Pizzolante et al., 2023).




Bai, Y., Ocampo, J., Jin, G., Chen, S., Benet-Martinez, V., Monroy, M., … & Keltner, D. (2021). Awe, daily stress, and elevated life satisfaction. Journal of personality and social psychology120(4), 837.

Chirico, A., Cipresso, P., Yaden, D. B., Biassoni, F., Riva, G., & Gaggioli, A. (2017). Effectiveness of immersive videos in inducing awe: an experimental study. Scientific reports7(1), 1218.

Chirico, A., Pizzolante, M., Borghesi, F., Bartolotta, S., Sarcinella, E. D., Cipresso, P., & Gaggioli, A. (2023). “Standing Up for Earth Rights”: Awe-Inspiring Virtual Nature for Promoting Pro-Environmental Behaviors. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking26(4), 300-308.

Jimenez, M. P., DeVille, N. V., Elliott, E. G., Schiff, J. E., Wilt, G. E., Hart, J. E., & James, P. (2021). Associations between Nature Exposure and Health: A Review of the Evidence. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health18(9).

Lerner JS, Keltner D. (2000). Beyond valence: Toward a model of emotion-specific influences on judgement and choice. Cogn Emot;14(4):473–493.

Lerner JS, Tiedens LZ. (2006). Portrait of the angry decision maker: How appraisal tendencies shape anger’s influence on cognition. J Behav Decis Mak; 19(2):115–137.

Liu, J., Huo, Y., Wang, J., Bai, Y., Zhao, M., & Di, M. (2023). Awe of nature and well-being: Roles of nature connectedness and powerlessness. Personality and Individual Differences201, 111946.

Rivera, G. N., Vess, M., Hicks, J. A., & Routledge, C. (2020). Awe and meaning: Elucidating complex effects of awe experiences on meaning in life. European Journal of Social Psychology50(2), 392-405.

Pizzolante, M., Borghesi, F., Sarcinella, E., Bartolotta, S., Salvi, C., Cipresso, P., … & Chirico, A. (2023). Awe in the metaverse: Designing and validating a novel online virtual-reality awe-inspiring training. Computers in Human Behavior148, 107876.

Rudd, M., Vohs, K. D., & Aaker, J. (2012). Awe expands people’s perception of time, alters decision making, and enhances well-being. Psychological science23(10), 1130-1136.

Sarcinella, E. D., Chirico, A., Gerardini, K., & Gaggioli, A. (2024, February). The Potential of Digital Nature on Mental Health and Environmental Learning: Opportunities and Challenges. In Positive Technology International Conference 2023 Positive Technology: Possible Synergies between Emerging Technologies and Positive Psychology (PT 2023) (pp. 66-81). Atlantis Press.

Yaden, D. B., Haidt, J., Hood Jr, R. W., Vago, D. R., & Newberg, A. B. (2017). The varieties of self-transcendent experience. Review of general psychology21(2), 143-160.



Malighetti, C. Psicologia aumentata: le basi scientifiche dell’innovativo metodo che usa la realtà virtuale.



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