Un-Natural Remedies

The forest canopy is a place that inspires human healing. Roger Ulrich, a professor of behavioral psychology at Texas A&M University and a pioneer in the study of environmental influences on health, contends that the proximity of nature can enhance human well-being in measurable ways. In his view, no environment is neutral, and the surroundings in which a hospital patient receives care significantly affect patient outcomes in both positive and negative ways. Fear and uncertainty about the prognosis, isolation from friends and loved ones, and related stresses can lead to suppression of the immune system, as well as dampen emotional and spiritual resources, and thus impede recovery. In the early 1990s, Ulrich observed that the psychological and social needs of patients had been largely disregarded in the design of health-care facilities. Rather than providing an environment that calms patients and strengthens coping resources and healing processes, our health-care facilities are frequently stark and impersonal, stressful to patients, and detrimental to caregivers.

Ulrich went beyond theory and tested these ideas. In a landmark study published in the journal Science, he investigated the recovery rates of a group of patients with contrasting views from their windows in a Texas hospital, all of whom had had gall bladder surgery. Some patients had rooms that overlooked a patch of trees in the hospital courtyard; others had windows that faced a concrete wall. Patients in rooms with views of trees spent fewer days in the hospital, used fewer narcotic drugs, had fewer complications, and registered fewer complaints with the nurses. Other studies showed that environments with nature-related imagery, such as photographs and paintings on the wall, reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, and reduce pain. Not only did Ulrich demonstrate a direct correlation between having a view of trees and better health, but research has since shown the obverse to be true as well, linking unsupportive surroundings such as blank walls and harsh lighting to elevated depression, greater need for pain drugs, and longer hospital stays. Even the most mainstream administrators, hospital architects, and interior designers now acknowledge that environments with nature imagery — from reception to radiology to restrooms — empower patients in their healing, provide relief for worried families, and fortify care providers.

Of course, not every hospital or clinic is fortunate enough to have views of a forest. Over the past decade, a number of private companies have been marketing artificial “treeviews” to health-care facilities. One such company, The Sky Factory, offers two product lines. The SkyCeiling, which creates a photographic illusion of a real tree canopy against a cloud-dotted blue sky, is installed in ceiling grids where fluorescent lights and acoustic panels usually reside, while the Luminous Virtual Window features landscape images for vertical walls. Though relatively expensive — panels cost between eighty-five and one hundred dollars per square foot — they are easily installed and radiate light at a color temperature of 6,500 degrees Kelvin (equivalent to natural sunlight) into the room. These companies post enthusiastic testimonials from patients about how views of blossoming and leafy trees had a soothing and balancing effect on them. Although little quantitative information exists to attest to these products’ direct health benefits, the fact that the artificial treeview business has grown exponentially in the past five years suggests their effectiveness — enough so, anyway, that hospital administrators are willing to pay handsomely for a room with a view, albeit a manufactured one, of trees.

Adapted from Between Earth and Sky, published in August 2008 by the University of California Press and used here by permission.


  1. It is good to read such articles. The only thing is: indigenous peoples, and our societies before we turned into a mechanicistic human outcome and guinea pigs, knew this very well.
    It is good to see that through the cracks these theories – which are in fact..facts – are becoming more accepted and popular.
    I have many examples (and my father was a pediatrician, so I was fully aware of the medical world) of myself doing what I thought was best to recovery from accidents or some sickness – and at elast 7 times out of 10 I did NOT listen to doctors, but to the magnet called Nature (I live in the mountains) especially for problems related to broken bones, sparined joints etc. Ride on.

  2. I serve in the board of a hospital located in the midst of Catskill Mountains in New York, and was faced constantly with the shortage of medical doctors willing to relocate into the country. As the article points out, there are a lot of wonderful assets in the mountain community and the medical service facility in the rural area. Friendly and responsive staff is one of them. Now, of course, the beautiful nature surrounding us is the best asset many other institutions would envy.

    It is good to reaffirm our inherent connection with nature.

  3. I wonder about ocean views. Would they also promote the same healing effects?

  4. At the Research Laboratory for Immersive Virtual Environments (http://virtualpsych.uwaterloo.ca), we read Nalina Nadkarni’s article with great interest. Some of our own research has also suggested that simulations of natural scenes can produce profoundly restorative effects. Such effects not only hold promise for promoting more effective healing, as suggested by Roger Ulrich, but they may also give us some tools to help understand more precisely how such effects come about. As we’re sure readers of this magazine would agree, nothing can replace real nature. But, experiments designed to help us understand some of the pathways by which exposure to nature promotes health and well-being might give us even more reasons to cherish and protect it.

  5. I agree that a picture of a tree would be better than the view of a brick wall if those were the only two choices but I have to tell you that when I read this article I had the creepy feeling that I’ve seen something like this in a futuristic movie – was it “Soylent Green”? – about living in a world where nature was gone and you could go into a chamber and watch a movie of the natural world before you got “recycled!”

    I believe that our illnesses come from being out of touch with the natural world and our own nature, all the time, and that we will only be well individually and collectively when we return to living in harmony with the natural world.

    We need the REAL tree with all the unpredictability and mess, the falling leaves, the birds and bugs, the breathing in CO2 and the breathing out oxygen of a tree. I’d rather have a real potted geranium than a hundred dollar a foot illusion.

  6. Rebecca, we struggle with these kinds of questions a lot. The last thing we’d want in our work is the suggestion that we’re trying to replace nature with a pale reflection. Yet the (sad) fact is that many of us have very limited access to natural settings. If we suspect that these windows have powerful effects on human health, is it ethical to NOT use them? Besides, perhaps mere exposure to these displays would serve to remind people of a connection to the natural world whose importance they’ve forgotten.

  7. I wasn’t just being sarcastic when I said that about the potted geranium. I think the same amount of money would be better spent at least on real plants. There are many plants that clean the air and benefit indoor air quality. Courtyards with oxygen producing plants and negative ion producing waterfalls are easy to incorporate into many building designs.

    I just want to see people focusing on dealing with the real problem, not covering up the lack of natural energy in our world with expensive substitutes.

  8. Its unfortunate that we live in a society that relies upon research to learn that what God or nature has created is more conducive to our well-being than the world that man has made. Looking at this information from a positive aspect, it indicates we are slowly coming out of the darkness and glimpsing the light.

  9. This auther makes an estremely relavant observation.It is time for holistic, herbal and complimentary healers to take their place in the environmental movement. They are both intertwined! Thanks, Eve

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