The Digital Naturalness project starts with the experience that so much of what we find most fulfilling in life comes from and is heightened by our connection to nature. The second foundational realization is that so much of our connection to digital technology doesn’t seem to have the same impact on us. It’s a simple starting place: if nature contributes to so much of what we love about life and the future is going to include digital technology that has a more and more powerful impact on our lives, let’s try to learn what we can from nature and see if we can find a way to design our technology so that it has those same deep, positive impacts on us as nature does.
In particular there are three basic qualities we feel we get in relationship to nature that are most basic, and most important for good human lives: increased wellness, increased beauty, and increased aliveness. Is it possible to learn from nature and design tech that also increases our wellness, our experience of beauty, and our sense of aliveness? And, even better, is it possible that the tech also contributes to greater wellness, beauty, and aliveness in the ecosystems it and we participate in?
We came to these three principles - wellness, beauty, and aliveness - intuitively. Then, after continued reflection and dialogue, confirmed them as potent aspects of our experiences of nature that support deep human health. We then conducted a literature review to see what the relevant science had to say about the way nature supports our beauty, aliveness and wellness. Our ultimate goal is to distill specific aspects of each in a way that can be applied, technically and concretely, to the design of digital products.
The following is a very brief outline of some of our findings from the literature review confirming that nature supports our wellness, beauty, and aliveness.
The holistic definition of health put forward by the World Health Organization is a useful starting point: “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity.” (WHO, 1948)
The following examples are wellness benefits we receive from nature physically, mentally and socially.
Physical Wellness: in nature, we experience physiological changes including lower pulse rates, reduced cortisol levels, and improved immune functioning (Ulrich et al, 1991). Studies have also shown faster recovery rates from illnesses and overall benefits on long term health (Velarde et al, 2007).
Mental Wellness: In nature we experience “attention restoration” (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1995) as the rich sensory stimuli present there engages our involuntary attention, giving our minds a rest from directed, focused attention. We may experience changes in our emotional state, including an increased sense of play, elation, and a reduced “fear arousal” (Ulrich, 1979) as well as fascination and a sense of mystery (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1995).
Social Wellness: We experience a feeling of deep social connection with nature through 'biophilia,' our “urge to affiliate with other forms of life” (Wilson, 1984). E.O. Wilson believes this to be an ancestral desire based on patterns of attraction to certain forms of nature that were also important for survival. For example, certain flowers indicate the presence of food, so we evolved to become deeply attracted to them. We may also feel more social towards others while in nature. Zhang et al. (2014) found that people exhibited “pro-social behavior when viewing aesthetically pleasing nature, such as increased perspective taking, empathy, generosity and trust with other people."
Beauty is defined by Merriam -Webster as “the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit” (“Beauty”). Preferences for beauty have both individual and collective patterns, such that some principles may be universal while others reflect specific values and perspectives (Mo et al, 2016). This is also true when experiencing beauty in nature.
Associations of an aesthetically pleasing landscape have come to be known as “scenic beauty” and include water features, plants in bloom, and winding pathways. Similar patterns of scenic beauty appreciation have been identified across cultures and are thought to be universal. In specific cultural and individual contexts, scenic beauty can arise from one’s values, attachment to a landscape, sense of identity, and sense of care towards a particular landscape (Gobster et al, 2007).
The benefits of viewing aesthetically pleasing nature are closely tied to the wellness benefits of interacting with nature, largely because our interactions are significantly (but certainly not only) visual. In fact, some research on viewing images of aesthetically pleasing nature suggests that spending time physically in nature is not required to experience its wellness benefits (Vincent et al, 2010).
The experience of beauty in nature also has important implications for our sense of connectedness and in turn our wellness. Zhang et al (2014) suggest that “connectedness with nature only predicts well-being when individuals are also emotionally attuned to nature's beauty.” Therefore, the emotional impacts of experiencing beauty in nature may be critical to receiving wellness benefits.
Aliveness can be defined in two senses, as an absolute quality distinct from being not alive, and as a continuous value positively correlated with our sense of energy and vitality (“Aliveness”). There is an extensive gradient between simply being barely alive and flourishing. Experiences in nature broaden our understanding of what is alive and heighten our vitality.
Alive/not Alive: General intuitions overlap significantly about what is “alive” and “not alive," though edge cases are not universally agreed to, nor is there a hard and fast definition of “alive” in academic biology or other fields. Sometimes “aliveness” is implicitly or explicitly grounded in having consciousness. However, there is even less consensus about how to know whether something is conscious or not (Muehlhauser, 2018). In both cases, however, we use nature and organisms in nature as our shared foundation for determining what is alive or not alive and in nature we interact with a diversity of life and the cycles of life and death much more than we do in urban environments.
Vitality: Similarly, the view that there are degrees of aliveness and consciousness is fairly widely held, though we have no precise theory of either of these spectra. Due to a combination of features of nature including increased sensory complexity, increased mystery, and decreased controllability compared to less natural environments, we experience heightened levels of sensory awareness and feelings of “aliveness” (Demares, 2000). Heightened sensory clarity is a common feature of peak experiences, cultivated and spontaneous, which often occur in nature (Roy, 2018). Feelings of nature connectedness influence our subjective sense of meaning, vitality, transcendence, and awe (Capaldi et al, 2015). Finally, nature is also a place where our basic feelings of safety and danger are heightened. Paradoxically, touching our own mortality also increases our sense of aliveness. In general, increased sensory richness, sensory clarity, emotional intensity, alertness, and connectedness are all enhanced by natural environments.
It is not difficult to see that human wellness is augmented when we are in nature or touched by nature in some way. By contrast, beauty, wellness and aliveness seem noticeably absent from our experiences interacting with digital technology. Human wellness decreases from long hours of sitting at a computer while staring at a screen; our experience of beauty decreases as we look at objects that are not built from the patterns we are evolutionarily disposed to appreciate, and our sense of aliveness lessens as we increasingly interact with nonliving systems.
And, we think this may not have to be in the case. In our next blog we’ll start to lay out some specific ways of translating these three principles into technical terms that may be useful for designing technology that mimics the deep qualities in nature that generate them.
“Aliveness.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/aliveness.
“Beauty.” Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/beauty.
Capaldi, Colin A., et al. “Flourishing in Nature: A Review of the Benefits of Connecting with Nature and Its Application as a Wellbeing Intervention.” International Journal of Wellbeing, vol. 5, no. 4, 2015, pp. 1–16., doi:10.5502/ijw.v5i4.1.
Demares, Ryan. Human Peak Experience Triggered by Encounters with Cetaceans. Anthrozoos, vol. 13, no. 2, 2000, pp.89-103, doi: 10.2752/089279300786999914.
Gobster, Paul H., et al. "The shared landscape: what does aesthetics have to do with ecology?." Landscape ecology, vol. 22, no. 7, 2007, pp. 959-972.
Kaplan, Rachel, and Stephen Kaplan. The Experience of Nature: a Psychological Perspective. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Mo, Ce, et al. “Natural Tendency towards Beauty in Humans: Evidence from Binocular Rivalry.” Plos One, vol. 11, no. 3, Jan. 2016, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0150147.
Roy, Bonnitta. “Awakened Perception: Perception as Participation." Integral Review, Vol. 14 No. 1, August 2018. https://integral-review.org/awakened-perception-perception-as-participation/.
Ulrich, Roger S., et al. “Stress Recovery during Exposure to Natural and Urban Environments.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 11, no. 3, 1991, pp. 201–230, doi:10.1016/s0272-4944(05)80184-7.
Ulrich, Roger S. “Visual Landscapes and Psychological Well‐Being.” Landscape Research, vol. 4, no. 1, 1979, pp. 17–23., doi:10.1080/01426397908705892.
Velarde, M.D., et al. “Health Effects of Viewing Landscapes – Landscape Types in Environmental Psychology.” Urban Forestry and Urban Greening, vol. 6, no. 4, 2007, pp. 199–212., doi:10.1016/j.ufug.2007.07.001.
Vincent, Ellen, et al. “The Effects of Nature Images on Pain in a Simulated Hospital Patient Room.” HERD: Health Environments Research and Design Journal, vol. 3, no. 3, 2010, pp. 42–55, doi:10.1177/193758671000300306.
Wilson, Edward O. Biophilia. Harvard University Press, 1984.
Zhang, Jia Wei, et al. “Engagement with Natural Beauty Moderates the Positive Relation between Connectedness with Nature and Psychological Well-Being.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 38, 2014, pp. 55–63, doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2013.12.013.
Zhang, Jia Wei, et al. “An Occasion for Unselfing: Beautiful Nature Leads to Prosociality.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, vol. 37, 2014, pp. 61–72, doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2013.11.008.