There is increasing scientific evidence that interacting with nature improves cognition and boosts feelings of emotional well-being. However, as more of the world is being developed, people's exposure to nature is being threatened. With that comes potentially harmful effects on human cognition and mental health. The Attention Restoration Theory suggests that nature is beneficial because it captures bottom-up attention moderately - enough to be interesting and not boring - giving the attention system a chance to restore itself, improving cognition and mood. However, the existing research has not clearly defined how or why nature captures attention “moderately”. Theories of aesthetic pleasure begin to answer this question by introducing the idea of disfluency reduction. The process of disfluency reduction leads to an aesthetic experience. Too much or too little disfluency or complexity within a scene results in feelings of confusion or boredom, respectively. Here, I aim to investigate the psychological mechanisms that account for the cognitive and emotional benefits of interacting with nature by integrating the attention restoration research with the aesthetic pleasure research. Specific objectives are: (1) assessing the behavioural and neural outcomes of immersion in nature using virtual reality combined with eye tracking and electroencephalography (EEG); (2) assessing the outcomes of isolation from nature using deep convolutional neural networks and machine learning; and (3) assessing the visual features that account for the above outcomes. Through understanding the psychological mechanisms underlying the benefits of nature exposure, we will be able to fully harness nature’s benefits and to forecast the negative impacts that further urbanization and indoor confinement may have on well-being. We can then use this knowledge to incorporate the important elements of nature in the design of new urban and indoor spaces, in order to minimize the negative impacts.
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