The Science of Looking at Nature in Photos and Films
Looking at photographs and film footage of nature correlates with restoration of the brain and body from stress (1, 2, 3). Nature photos and film may therefore get at the heart – and brain – of the stress response. This finding is one of the foundations of this website.
The ability to intervene in the stress response is a fundamental component of mental health that can have far-reaching effects on conditions from stress to mental health disorders. Looking at ocean waves breaking while breathing along with them and scrolling through the website’s pages of nature images may therefore have an impact on your brain and your mental well-being.
Given that exploring in nature is such a full-bodied sensory experience, it is perhaps an affirmation of nature’s potency for humans that just looking at photographs or film of nature scenes appears to sway the nervous system.
Could nearly 2 million years of evolution in nature still influence us today so that the nature surrounding that once had direct survival meaning for us still has a nurturing effect?
Geneticists and anthropologists indicate that humans today likely run largely the same genetic programs as those of pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers (4,5). Given the relative lack of nature exposure in contemporary lifestyles, a genetic predisposition for survival in nature could in part explain how a simple image of nature could have a potent effect on mental well-being today.
One of the early significant studies of responses to nature photographs compared to urban photographs found that people who viewed nature photos reported more positive emotional states and had better physiologic indicators of stress, such as heart rate, compared to people who viewed urban photos (1).
Subsequently studies of viewing nature vs. urban photographs and film footage have indicated that viewing nature images leads to higher higher heart rate variability (HRV) than does viewing urban images (2, 3).
HRV is an indicator to watch. As a significant index of how well the heart and brain may communicate to regulate the stress response, HRV is thought to assess the ability of the parasympathetic (calming) nervous system to balance the (activating) sympathetic nervous system. High heart rate variability indicates flexibility and adaptability in response to challenges. Low heart rate variability indicates lower levels of adaptability accompanied by greater risk for conditions such as heart disease and mental health disorders (6,7).
When the heart responds to an external event, the quality of its signal to the brain will influence the degree of resilience that the brain can orchestrate in response. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the overseeing brain region that influences self-control and adaptability. Good communication from the heart up to the brain through the vagus nerve appears to allow the prefrontal cortex to perform. It’s orchestration of the network of systems involved in the stress response may then prevent stress from running away with us (7,8).
HRV is considered one of the best indicators of the effectiveness of this vital stress response system and therefore resilience. That just looking at nature on film appears to influence HRV and tone the stress response hints at a dynamic role for nature - and nature media - in human mental health.
 Ulrich RS (1981). Natural versus urban scenes, some psychophysiological effects. Environment and Behavior 13(5):523-556.
 Ulrich RS, Simons RF, Losito BD et al. (1991). Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology 11:201-230.
 Brown DK, Barton JL, Gladwell VF (2013). Viewing nature scenes positively affects recovery of autonomic function following acute-mental stress. Environmental Science and Technology 47:5562-5569.
 Eaton SB, Eaton III SB, Konner MJ, Shostak M (1996). An evolutionary perspective enhances understanding of human nutritional requirements. Nutrition 126:1732-1740.
 Neel JV (1994). Physician to the gene pool: genetic lessons and other stories. John Wiley and Sons.
 McGrady A (2007). Psychophysiological mechanisms of stress. Principles and Practices of Stress Management: 16-37.
 Porges SW (2011). The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). WW Norton & Company.
 Thayer JF, Hansen ALH, Saus-Rose E, Johnsen BH (2009). Heart rate variability, prefrontal neural function, and cognitive performance: The neurovisceral integration perspective on self-regulation, adaptation, and health. Annals of Behavioral Medicine 37:141-153.