Numerous research studies have shown that people experiencing stress, fatigue, trauma, and recovery from illness respond positively to natural settings, natural elements (such as indoor plants and water features), and views of nature.

But what of nature imagery or patterns similar to those found in nature? Does exposure to sensory stimuli that remind us of being in a natural setting produce a similar effect? Several recent studies indicate that they do.

Psychologists Elyssa Twedt of St. Lawrence University in New York and Reuben Rainey and Dennis Proffitt of the University of Virginia were interested in determining the attributes of the natural environment that have visual appeal for people in need of restoration. Further, they wanted to know if these attributes affected people differently in nature than in built environments.

As in previous studies, they found that more visually appealing and more natural environments were perceived to be more restorative than less visually appealing and less natural environments. However, visual appeal ranked somewhat higher than natural environments, suggesting “that the relationship between naturalness and perceived restorative potential may in part be due to how natural environments are generally more visually appealing than built environments.”

In some case, the quality of the aesthetics mattered more than the actual setting.

A similar finding occurred in an investigation of office window views conducted by a team of researchers at the Open University of Hong Kong. They discovered that while employees generally prefer having an office with a window view, not all window views produce beneficial effects.

One might expect that offices with views of natural settings would be more appealing than those with views of other buildings or cityscapes. In fact, though, the researchers determined that some nature views can actually be detrimental to employees.

They concluded, “Whether the view is natural or urban, the specific features of window views had the greatest impact on employees’ psychological, physical, and job-specific well-being.”

Employees taking part in the study responded more positively to views that exhibited features of coherence (symmetry, organization) and mystery (arousing curiosity). Negative views were those that looked out onto scenes with high complexity (considered visually overwhelming) and with places of potential refuge (where potential dangers might hide).

The authors suggest that employees with undesirable window views may want to improve their offices’ visual appeal by closing the curtains and putting up pictures of attractive nature scenes and cityscapes.

Another study looked at whether the use of a virtual nature experience could produce beneficial effects similar to those of natural settings for people with dementia. A memory care unit in an assisted living facility was modified with the use of a flat-panel television installed to simulate a window frame.

A one-hour unedited nature video was played, with the same scene showing a waterfall in the foreground and a distant view of mountains in the background, with naturally occurring sounds. Plants and nature photos were added to the room, to enhance the feeling of the presence of nature.

Participants in the study alternated spending time between the test room and an ordinary sitting room used as a control for a total of three separate occasions for each room. Monitoring of the participants revealed that they exhibited reduced stress and negative emotions as well as an increase in pleasure. Although the study was small and preliminary, the authors note that it shows promise for providing the benefits of exposure to nature when access to a natural setting may not be available or advisable.

These findings add to the body of research that indicates nature imagery and natural patterns when integrated into interior environments can have positive effects for occupants similar to those experienced in nature itself. This has important implications for healthcare, workplace, education, and institutional design especially, where reducing stress and negative moods can greatly improve occupant health, well-being and performance.