Simulating the Benefits of Nature Exposure on Cognitive Performance in Virtual Reality: A Window into Possibilities for Education and Cognitive Health

Brain Sci. 2022 May 31;12(6):725. doi: 10.3390/brainsci12060725.


Purpose: This one-group pretest−posttest, designed within a subject study, looks to compare the effects of an outdoor nature walk (ONW) to those of a virtual nature walk (VRW) on memory and cognitive function. Implications are discussed for education as well as for the world of virtual reality. Methods: Sixty-four healthy university students were asked to complete an ONW and a VRW, which was created using 3D video of the same nature trail used for the ONW. The VRW condition involved a five-minute walk on a treadmill, while wearing a virtual reality mask (Oculus, San Francisco, USA) that projected a previously recorded three-dimensional capture of the same nature walk they experienced outdoors. Both experimental conditions lasted approximately 5 min and were counterbalanced between participants. A Digit Span Test (Digit) for working memory and a Trail Test (TMT) for executive function were administered to all study participants, immediately before and after each type of walk. Results: For executive function testing (Trail Making Test), our results demonstrate that both the ONW and VRW condition improved the TMT time, when compared to a baseline (ONW 37.06 ± 1.31 s vs. 31.75 ± 1.07 s, p < 0.01 and VRW 36.19 ± 1.18 s vs. 30.69 ± 1.11 s, p < 0.01). There was no significant difference between the ONW and VRW groups. Similarly, for the Digit memory task, both conditions improved compared to the baseline (ONW 54.30 ± 3.01 vs. 68.4 ± 2.66, p < 0.01 and VRW 58.1 ± 3.10 vs. 67.4 ± 2.72, p < 0.01). There was a difference at the baseline between the ONW and VRW conditions (54.3 ± 3.01 vs. 58.1 ± 3.10, p < 0.01), but this baseline difference in memory performance was no longer significant post exercise, between groups at follow-up (68.4 ± 2.66 vs. 67.4 ± 2.72, p < 0.08). Conclusions: Our results suggest that both a virtual reality protocol and a nature walk can have positive outcomes on memory and executive function in younger adults.

Keywords: cognitive performance; education; memory; nature walks; virtual reality.

Grants and funding

This research received no external funding.