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How can VR improve mental health

Eascape, a new VR relaxation app created by neuroscientists and landscape architects, makes it possible to benefit from the healing power of nature without leaving home. The test version of the app has just been launched, as the whole world deals with the consequences of coronavirus waves and lockdowns. It is not a coincidence. In this difficult time creators of the app encourage us all to start looking at VR technology as an effective self-care tool, ready to reconnect us with nature and ease our minds.

An intensive work on the project started almost exactly one year ago – during the first lockdown. We wanted to better understand people's psychological needs in times of confinement, so we conducted the world-wide survey on this very topic. What we have learned was very striking, although not that surprising – at least not to us – says Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo, co-founder of Eascape, then she adds: It turned out that what we, humans, miss the most in such difficult conditions is, apart from being close with relatives and friends, a deeper connection with nature. The pandemic has shown what neuroscientists and environmental psychologists have known for a long time – that being around green spaces is crucial to our mental health and cognitive processes such as memory, attention or creativity.

We need nature more than ever

If we talk about our exposure to nature the situation had been dire even before pandemic, especially in big cities. Science shows that urban, stressful and chaotic environments full of stimulation increase the risk of psychiatric disorders by 38% as compared to rural living. We work long hours in office spaces, away from green scenery, then we go home, where we often stay until the next day, too tired to go out and have at least a stroll in a nearby park. And even if we are keen to spend some relaxing time in green environments – we often simply cannot do so, since due to the urbanization and biodiversity loss processes we have no longer unlimited access to such spaces. This simply cannot be good to our well-being. We need to take action. We must be mindful of what we expose ourselves to everyday, to keep a healthy mind, help with depression and anxiety, alleviate stress, and reduce the risk of dementias – explains Nicolas Escoffier, one of the creators of Eascape.

Landscapes that ease our minds

Eascape builds on the concept of Contemplative Landscapes, an idea conceived in 2011 by Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo, as part of her scientific work in Landscape Architecture and Urban Ecology. In her research, she found that there are certain characteristics of the scenic views that can influence the human brain to improve mental health and well-being. Contemplative Landscapes should for example contain a certain landform with many layers, natural asymmetry and the depth of the view.

Being surrounded by such scenery we should be able to observe subtle phenomena such as the play of light and shade, trembling leaves or shadows growing and shrinking with the passage of the sun. What adds to contemplativeness of a landscape are also archetypal elements like a running body of water, a path, an old tree or a big stone. 

The space should also carry a character of peace and silence, providing comfort and  a sense of solitude. It activates our nervous system and a built-in biophilia – a state that exists in all of us since the time when we were still living in close relation with nature – says Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo. 

VR experience like no other 

Eascape is nothing like VR games. It differs even from other VR relaxation apps. Most of the VR apps absorb our attention completely. We have tasks to do, fantastic creatures to meet or new things to learn. All this generates the beta waves in our brain, making our mind work at top speed, and eventually causing mental fatigue. Eascape is not a gaming experience. It works in the opposite way to generate the alpha waves which are characteristic for the state of relaxation and mindfulness. On a daily basis, we have access to such state only through sleep, meditation or close contact with nature – says Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo.

The app contains full HD 3D 180° videos, recorded in a scientifically confirmed Contemplative Landscape site: Parchi di Nervi in Genoa, Italy. The user is able to hear the natural, relaxing sound of chirping birds and teleport to four locations across the lawn. The environment has been designed in a very minimalistic way, intentionally deprived of special effects or extraordinary elements. It is a place for soft fascination and gentle exploration that calms down the mind. The whole experience should feel as a pleasant mindfulness practice, available at one’s fingertips. The Eascape team recommends spending 10 min per day in Eascape for 2 weeks to see the improvements in mood. A pilot test showed 32% reduction of depressive mood after just 7 min using Eascape demo, when compared to another VR environment.

 

 

Healthy VR environments to the rescue of today’s societies

We are sure that healthy VR environments can make a huge change in the way we as society deal with mental health problems – says Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo. Desire to help those who need access to nature have brought together the Eascape team which consists of people from all around the world. Growing up, they were all observing different kinds of landscapes, learning how it can affect people's well-being. That was a huge source of inspiration. 

When the world of Academia meets VR industry

Among Eascape team members there are scientists from University of Porto and National University of Singapore who specialize in Neuroscience, Environmental Psychology and Landscape Architecture. Why did they decide to go out with their expertise beyond the world of Academia and cross their paths with the VR industry? We wanted to use our knowledge and create a tool that would be accessible and helpful for everyone, especially for those who struggle with depression, anxiety, sleeplessness or burnout, as well as for elderly people who due to their health conditions often stay in isolation – says Nicolas Escoffier. 

An invitation to a green peaceful change

A free version of Eascape is being launched right now on Oculus. But that is just the beginning. We dream big. We intend to conduct further research on the app, adjust it to particular groups of users and add new healthy environments based on Contemplative Landscapes from all corners of the world. But for now, we just want as many people as possible to try Eascape and be part of our green peaceful change. Our app is not about replacing nature – that’s simply impossible. But when you simply cannot access it, it is as close as it gets to the real experience – says Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo.

 

BBC Worls Service, My perfect City

NeuroLandscape featured in BBC “My Perfect City”

NeuroLandscape featured in BBC "My Perfect City" Series episode which was released on: 30 Dec 2020

New episode of the BBC World Service "My perfect city" features Dr Agnieszka Olszewska-Guizzo among other experts.  They discuss Singapore as a city which attempts to improve residents' mental wellbeing through urban design.

Generally, people in cities are likely to experience mental health problems.  This counts for about 38% more than people living outside of big cities. Urban greening and creating therapeutic gardens with contemplative features can really help. But also, promoting high amenity public spaces,  physical exercise, housing security and social services are important too! These solutions can make a city more liveable but also reduce rates of disorders such as OCD, anxiety and depression.

But are these community-based, non-medical approaches enough to improve mental health among the population of the highly urbanized Singapore? Let's find out!

 

Listen to the end to find out if Singapore receives 3 ticks -  a perfect city mark.  This means that Singapore should be an example to follow by other cities!

Taking part in the podcast like this one was a great experience. Thanks to endeavours like this one we can share the knowledge from the scientists and inform the public!

Here are some other blog posts related to Singapore:

  1. Singapore Urban Sustainability MND Congress.
  2. IFLA Conference, Singapore
  3. Neuroscience data collection outdoors
  4. NeuroLandscape featured in BBC "My Perfect City"
wero

Layers of Landscape – Contemplative Landscape Features Series

If you have ever wondered why movie characters always seem to be entrenched in deep thought while looking out far into the distance, this post is for you as it explains the science behind this magic of long-distance views.

It all comes down to a category of contemplative features of landscapes we call ‘Layers of Landscape’. It includes features such as the depth of view, which is connected directly to the visibility of three planes and the comfort of long-distance views. As one might expect, it is divided into three distance zones, foreground, middleground and background. This is demonstrated on the photograph of Buchanan Street in Glasgow, Scotland. 

In contemplative landscapes, long-distance views are vital as they account for about 70% of the ‘weight’ of the overall score of a landscape in comparison to other categories. According to many authors, being able to see far away is a feature that significantly improves the quality of landscape through the visitor’s perception capability. Long-distance views stimulate in the observer a sense of personal freedom, mental pleasure, stress reduction, an improvement of the quality of life in the city (Skalski, 2005; Tuan, 1974).

 The importance of long distance-views has also been confirmed in environmental psychology. Long-distance views are thought to stimulate the away feeling and a reorientation from every-day life (especially life within an urban context), because being away goes beyond simple “getting away from it all”, and means switching between various activities and changing the perspective of viewing things and everyday activities.

 The image below presents the City Park of Porto in Portugal; a great example of a park with one of the main functions stated as contemplation, showing just how long-distance views help to achieve this goal. The park provides many panoramic settings with very long distance views (including views reaching the ocean horizon line), and thus a contemplative experience.

A valley-corridor enables long distance panoramic views, Parque da Cidade, Porto, Portugal.

The CLASS software we developed can identify features such as the presence of long-distance views in the images it analyses and score them accordingly. While it is just one of many features of a contemplative space, the incorporation of panoramic views in landscape designs is a good start to increase their chances of fulfilling the function of promoting contemplation and relaxation of the visitors.

In this short review, we hope to have given you a few clues as to the science behind why some landscapes are more therapeutic than others. Our advice? Next time you have a chance, gaze up and into the distance, and enjoy the benefits of contemplating a landscape far into the horizon line.

Based on Olszewska, A. (2016) “Contemplative Values of Urban Parks and Gardens Applying Neuroscience to Landscape Architecture”, PhD thesis, University of Porto, Portugal, with some parts quoted verbatim.

 

Other references:

Skalski, J. (2005). “Comfort of long-distance perceiving and a landscape of river valley in towns situated on the plains”, Teka Komisji Architektury, Urbanistyki i Studiów Krajobrazowych, 1.

Yeomans, W. C. (1983), Visual Resource Assessment: A User Guide. BC, Ministry of Environment.

wero

CLASS Software

Contemplative Landscape Automated Scoring System (CLASS)

CLASS stands for Contemplative Landscape Automated Scoring System. And it is the software that enables instant scoring of any digital landscape image according to seven contemplative landscape features:

How was CLASS developed?

The research on CLASS started with the process of operationalization of the concept of contemplative landscapes. This was based on the assumption that each landscape setting (scene, view) has some level of the contemplative values (aka. sensori-emotional values that may influence our emotional states, sense of well-being or even physiological processes.

There are already existing tools that enable recognizing and evaluating the scenic beauty or visual quality of a landscape. However, they are not calibrated to serve for the typically urbanized context, such as urban parks, gardens and different types of areas touched by landscape architecture design. Another problem with so far existing evaluation tools is the problem with expert-based approach. The main limitation for all expert-based tools is the low level of precision, reliability and validity. This means that the differences between responses of different experts about the same landscape are sometimes as big as differences between two different landscape settings.

We wanted to overcome these limitations, and create a new tool, a Contemplative Landscape Model, that we tested for reliability and validity. When our traditional tool was ready, we asked a group of international experts to annotate the set of images, using our tool. The details of that process was published in a paper titled “What makes a landscape contemplative?” [1]The database of their responses served as a training data for our neural network.

After months of testing, we were able to choose the combination of ANN models that would produce the best combined contemplativeness score and created the CLASS scoring system that can evaluate the contemplativeness of landscape images with scores similar to those of experts.  The figure below presents the performance of the CLASS prototype in comparison to “real experts”. The detailed process is described in the paper titled “CLASS: Contemplative landscape automated scoring system” [2].


What is CLASS?

We can say that CLASS is an artificial expert’s brain trained to classify the level of contemplativeness of the landscapes, combining the expertise of 10 international academic experts. It recognizes seven key features of a contemplative landscape within an uploaded digital picture, and gives an immediate, objective score for each of the seven features as well as the total contemplative score. CLASS is also constantly learning creating a database with every picture, so the more it works the more precise and intelligent it becomes.

Anybody with a license subscription can access the CLASS via online, where, through the friendly interface they can upload any digital image they want evaluated and obtain instant scoring of the contemplativeness of a picture.

      

How to select the photographs for CLASS?

CLASS is sensitive only to images of landscapes of urban parks and gardens so it wouldn’t work if we upload a photo of a puppy, or any other than it is not designed for. In order to obtain more precise scores, we recommend to upload a good quality, digital photographs of a clear view over the space, from a ground level (eye level of a standing person) in daylight, and without animals or too many people within the view. Some examples are given aside. The image should be taken in most interesting for us weather conditions, so for example, if we want to see how contemplative is the space in general, we should take a picture in the weather conditions that are the most common, and most likely for largest number of people to be seen.

How much does it cost?

We are a non-profit organization so we consider using of the CLASS as pro-bono approach. However, because of the costs of the servers, and maintenance of the software we will charge private entities who want to use it. The costs of a license subscription can be found here along with the payment method.

Does it really work?

As much as it is surprising and hard to believe, YES! If you don’t believe it, please check it out for free through our demo version!

References:

  1. Olszewska, A. A., Marques, P. F., Ryan, R. L., & Barbosa, F. (2016). What makes a landscape contemplative?. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, 0265813516660716.
  2. Navickas, L., Olszewska, A., & Mantadelis, T. (2016, June). CLASS: Contemplative landscape automated scoring system. In Control and Automation (MED), 2016 24th Mediterranean Conference on (pp. 1180-1185). IEEE.
Virtual Healthy Environments (VHE)

Research shows that what we are exposed to passively during the day in the course of our live can have a tremendous impact on our mental health and wellbeing. It is also demonstrated by the research that the exposures to the urban built-up environments is detrimental to our health, and exposure to certain types of natural landscapes can do wonders for our ability to restore our attention, decrease stress levels, improve the cognitive functions, productivity, creative performance and even strengthen the social bonds.

In the urban life there is not much time left for the daily exposures to natural environments, and even if one would visit contemplative parks everyday, in many northern countries, it is usually very gray and cold for large portion of the year. There are also groups of people, in hospitals, nursing homes etc who simply cannot walk out to the park.

Having all these in mind NeuroLandscape is working on the virtually-enabled interventions called VHE, and tested in the real life and lab settings. We are still working on it, but we believe that soon our first products will be released and available for public.