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Researchers have launched a study to explore how digital nature experiences can be good for us


It’s well-documented that being in nature has a profound effect on wellbeing. Good news for destination and resort spas which have expansive grounds for guests to explore.

Now, a new study by researchers in the UK could help city spas and those with little outdoor space to tap into aspects of forest bathing too.

The research will investigate our response to digital and virtual experiences of nature and is part of a wider collaboration between the BBC and the University of Exeter called Soundscapes for Wellbeing. The purpose of the study is to find out how best to bring virtual experiences of nature to those who can’t get outside.

Led by psychologist and PhD researcher Alex Smalley, the study explores people’s responses to different digital nature environments created by composer Nainita Desai and sound recordist Chris Watson. It was originally designed with vulnerable people in long-term care or those restricted to clinical settings – most of whom can’t get outdoors and are deprived of nature’s benefits. Lockdown has since increased the number of people shut off from nature and so the urge is growing to investigate how these virtual experiences could be used as an alternative means to support wellbeing.

Speaking on BBC programme WinterWatch, Smalley called digital nature encounters “therapeutic tools in their own right” and gave two possible reasons to explain this. “Firstly, we evolved in natural environments, so we should have an innate biophilic preference for viewing them as well as spending time in them,” he said. “Secondly, there are these inherent qualities in nature – things that can capture our fascination and hold our attention – which can help those parts of our brains that might be stressed and tired to recover.”

He suggested that there may be certain aspects of nature that are more rewarding, such as images and sounds of water, but also alluded to the idea that even a brief moment could have an impact. “I’m really interested in fleeting experiences in nature, things like sunrises and sunsets, which come to define a person’s encounter.”

The study’s results could provide valuable insights and evidence for spa operators on how best to use digital nature applications to boost customer wellbeing, or confirm that they’re already on the right path. For example, offering immersive VR relaxation treatments using rich nature visuals such as Sensync, and incorporating recorded wildlife soundtracks in wet and thermal experiences. Anyone who’s attended the Global Wellness Summit can also attest to the mesmerising nature-based films of Louis Schwartzberg.

In light of COVID-19, operators could make use of digital nature in touchless experiences. Plus, spas in cities could use such offerings to enhance their attraction as calming sanctuaries from busy urban life. l

The study takes 10 minutes to complete. Click to take part.

company profile
Company profile: Alliance Leisure
The company’s core business is the provision of facility development and support for local authorities, educational establishments and leisure trusts that want to improve or expand the leisure products and services they offer.
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