CAN THE BENEFITS OF NATURE EXPOSURE ON COGNITIVE PERFORMANCE BE SIMULATED IN VIRTUAL REALITY? A CORRELATIONAL STUDY IN POST-SECONDARY STUDENTS

M. Leger1, S. Mekary2

1Universite de Moncton (CANADA)
2Acadia University (CANADA)
The way in which we experience the world today is increasingly through our exposure to screens, namely from using cellphones, videogames and computers, etc. The trend towards a more technologically rich world is present in all aspects of modern twentieth century life, from health care, to industry to education. Advances in technologies are changing the way we learn and live, driving economic competitiveness and social development. A new form of higher education is emerging that looks at teaching, research and service in a different way, one where university is interdisciplinary and comprised of virtual learning spaces. Twenty first century learners prefer educational environments that are highly interactive, such is the case with lesson plans which include augmented or virtual reality. Educational research is still unclear as to whether teaching in such virtual environments is in fact beneficial to learning.

On the other hand, research seems clearer when it comes to outdoor educational spaces and their benefits for learning and general wellbeing. Cognitive research has shown that school-aged children can demonstrate improved performance on mental tasks, like memory, when such tasks are undertaken in a natural setting. Yet, this same literature is not as extensive regarding adult learners, most studies focusing less on cognitive effects and mainly reporting on the health benefits of nature exposure such as decreased hypertension and allergic response. Accordingly, this paper looks to respond to the lack of research on the potential cognitive effects of nature walks for older learners, namely university students.

This paper explores the educational possibilities associated with blending both of these approaches to learning. In other words, we look to answer the following research question: Can the documented cognitive benefits of being in nature be simulated in a virtual reality environment? As its main objective, this pilot study looks to answer the proposed question by comparing the potential effects of a nature walk to those of a virtual nature walk (one done while wearing a virtual reality (VR) mask and walking on a treadmill), specifically on memory and cognitive flexibility. From a research methods perspective, an nonexperimental correlational approach was used to explore the possible relationship between the subjects’ performance on cognitive tests (dependent variable) following time outdoors during a nature walk and after a virtual simulation of that same nature walk (two independent variables). The research subjects are undergraduate university students from Université de Moncton (NB, Canada).

Participants were brought to the a nearby nature trail and walked for five minutes in the forest. Before and after the walk, they performed two cognitive tests, namely the Digit memory test and the Trail making test. Two months later, in December, these same participants were invited to an indoor laboratory where they performed the same two cognitive tests before walking five minutes on a treadmill with a VR mask which projected a three-dimensional capture of the same nature-walk they did in the fall. Cognitive post-testing was then done. We anticipate correlational results will confirm our hypothesis that participating university students will experience better cognitive performance after walking in nature, as compared to walking in a VR simulated natural environment.