Can Virtual Reality Mimic Nature’s Power to Make Us Healthier?

For decades, scientists have been exploring how exposing humans to nature—by planting trees along urban streets, visiting forests or even just growing houseplants—may improve physical and psychological health. Now researchers are also testing whether we can reap at least some of the same benefits from experiencing nature in virtual reality. This strange twist speaks to some recent, powerful findings on the health impacts of nature exposure.

“We are seeing new research, really on a daily basis, coming out that is measuring, quantifying and showing the benefits of living and being in green places,” says Michelle Kondo, a research social scientist at the U.S. Forest Service. She says the recent bloom in research has been fed in part by medical records going electronic; this creates massive health data sets that scientists can compare to satellite views showing the relative greenness of each person’s neighborhood. Read more about JPB Fellows Hector Olvera and Gregory Bratman’s research.