OBJECTIVE: Examine whether there are unique patterns of brain activation associated with exposure to photographic sky compositions (representing nature stimuli) as compared with other positive, negative, and neutral images.
BACKGROUND: The positive impact of nature images on health outcomes traditionally has been measured using behavioral and physiological indicators. However, there is a lack of understanding of the underlying neural mechanism that explains this positive influence.
METHODS: A combination of behavioral responses and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology was used to address research questions. Ten participants belonging to five age groups were subjected to short (25 seconds) exposures of 32 images while their brain activation was monitored via the BOLD response. In a separate run, participants were subjected to extended exposures (12 minutes) of a sky composition and an image of a traditional ceiling.
RESULTS: The results show that the activation patterns produced by sky compositions and positive images were quite similar as compared to negative or neutral images. However, sky compositions also produced some unique areas of activation, including those associated with spatial cognition, the expanse of space, circadian rhythm, and perceived motion. In the extended exposure condition, sky compositions tended to activate regions associated with dreaming, while traditional ceiling images activated regions that are related to face processing and potentially visual hallucinations.
CONCLUSIONS: Nature stimuli, with a combination of vegetation and sky, may produce unique beneficial effects not present in general positive stimuli.
KEYWORDS: Evidence-based design, hospital, healing environments, outcomes, patient-centered care
PREFERRED CITATION: Pati, D., O'Boyle, M., Amor, C., Hou, J., Valipoor, S., & Fang, D. (2014). Neural correlates of nature stimuli: An fMRI study. Health Environments Research & Design Journal, 7(2), 9-28.