Using 'virtual nature experiences' to improve inmate outcomes

Exposing inmates to video and audio recordings of nature shows promise in improving prison culture, a new study has found


By Sarah Sinning

It has been well documented that exposure to nature is good for the soul — people who regularly spend time outdoors experience less stress, improved moods and even greater empathy and cooperation with those around them. They're also significantly less likely to develop psychologial disorders down the line.

And while prison may be the last place you'd think of when it comes to natural experiences — and the therapeutic advantages that come along with them — a new study is expanding our understanding of how inmates, and other nature-deprived populations, can likewise tap into these soothing qualities without ever having to step foot outside. 

A new study shows that you don't have to actually be in nature to experience its many benefits.
A new study shows that you don't have to actually be in nature to experience its many benefits. (Getty Images)

Led by University of Utah researchers, the study exposed 71 Salt Lake County Jail inmates to three-minute segments of both nature imagery and audio recordings, and then monitored their impact on the participants' stress levels. 

Not only did these "virtual nature experiences" drive measureable reductions in stress, both physiological and perceived, but they also spurred the inmates' interests in learning more about those natural environments. There also wasn't a strong overall preference for one type of experience over another, i.e. visual vs. auditory.

While a previous study by lead researcher Nalini Nadkarni showed that inmates who watched videos of natural environments committed fewer violent infractions, this new research expands upon that finding, suggesting that such experiences could also be used to help prepare inmates for re-entering society.

“Decreasing their stress while incarcerated through low cost-methods like exposure to nature imagery,” said James Ruff, one of the study's associate researchers, "could allow them to better focus on their educational, mental health and job training needs leading to better outcomes. What this study does is begin to fine-tune what aspects of nature imagery optimally reduces stress.”

Full findings from the study published in June's edition of Ecopsychology can be found here.

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