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Psychological research in a virtual butterfly garden

People prefer natural environments over urban environments. This predilection for nature can be explained by the fact that nature has a healing effect on humans. A walk in the wilderness leads to reduction of stress. Also, it turns out that people after a walk in the wilderness are able to concentrate better compared to a walk in an urban environment. People recover better in nature because nature is fascinating. Fascination means that your attention is drawn effortlessly by certain things in the environment. Because you do not waste energy to focus your attention, you rest better and recover faster.

The virtual butterflygarden; with on the left Roos Pals
The virtual butterflygarden; with on the left Roos Pals

Roos Pals, PhD student environmental psychology at the State University of Groningen, performs research into how people experience zoo attractions. She examines how a zoo attraction should be designed so that people become fascinated. For this research the idea was to use a virtual butterfly garden. With the help of virtual reality a very controlled experiment can be done, to examine how specific elements in a zoo attraction affect the perception of people.

Urban area
Urban area

In an initial investigation Roos Pals looked at how well people can recover in the virtual butterfly garden compared to a virtual city. Participants of the study were first asked to solve Sudoku puzzles for fifty minutes, so they became mentally tired. After that they had to walk a while in the virtual butterfly garden or take a walk in the virtual city. Before and after the walk in the virtual environment, the heart rate and breathing was measured to determine whether the participants could recover better in the butterfly garden or the city. Heartbeat and breathing are good indicators for mental fatigue. In a questionnaire, participants were asked how attractive both virtual environments were and how well they could come to rest in the virtual environments. The preliminary investigation, which took place in november 2007, showed that the people found the butterfly garden much more attractive and more fascinating. People also said that they  came to rest easier in the butterfly garden. However, from the heartbeat and breathing of the participants it could not be concluded that people are better able to restore from the mental fatigue in the butterfly garden compared to the city.

Why do people find a virtual butterfly garden more fascinating than a city? Is it because there is more movement in the butterfly garden? Is it the large amount of plants? Is it the sound? And how can one design a virtual butterfly garden so people can restore better from mental fatigue? Roos Pals hopes to answer these questions in through further research.

Last modified:08 April 2016 3.57 p.m.
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