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39. Natural Versus Urban Scenes: Some Psychophysiological Effects

DescriptionUlrich comments on the intuitive belief held by many people that contact with nature is good for them. He then evaluates this assumption for the specific case of visual exposure to outdoor environments. He asserts that this 'nature benefit assumption' underpins most actions establishing city parks, urban landscaping programmes and the provision of urban fringe nature areas.

The study examines the psychophysical effects of three categories of outdoor visual environment:

  1. nature with water
  2. nature dominated by vegetation
  3. urban environments without water or vegetation

The experiments use alpha wave amplitude (eye closed alpha data which shows electrical activity associated with arousal, alertness and anxiety, etc.) and heart rate (electrocardiographs to show arousal or activation which can often accompany mental problem solving for example)as measures in the study of exposure to different landscapes. These were viewed in a room using a slide projector.

This was supported by a semantic questionnaire consisting of 36 scales to measure an individual's moods and feelings at the time of the test, and the Zipers (Zuckerman Inventory of Personal Reactions, Zuckerman, 1977).


The study showed that the subjects' psychophysical states changed in different ways during the slide presentations as a function of the type of environment viewed. Compared to the influences of urban slides, exposure to the two nature categories - especially water-had more beneficial influences on the psychological states.

Differences revealed by the alpha results are consistent with the conclusion, based on the self-ratings, that the most positive influences on well-being were produced by the nature scenes. However, findings from the psychological measures suggest that, compared with the influence of the urban scenes, exposure to natural scenes have more positive effects on emotions such as sadness and fear arousal. Thus it is possible that some effects of outdoor visual exposures interact in a complex way with other factors such as personality, time of day or mood prior to the test.

PublishedEnvironment and Behavior, 13,(5):523-556
AuthorsUlrich, R. S.
PublisherSage Publications Inc
Pricesubscription c. £183 p.a. (6) 
Keywordsvisual perception, environmental perception, Berlyne, environmental aesthetics, psychobiology 

Results are related to Berlyne's theory, which Ulrich considers to be the dominant framework in experimental aesthetics. According to Berlyne the most important property of a visual stimulus is complexity, which refers generally to the number of independently perceived elements and their degree of dissimilarity, (Berlyne (1971). Most of the studies which support this theory are based on nonlandscape stimuli.

Ulrich suggests that complexity is a less important factor in attention/ interest than is landscape content and concludes that Berlyne's theory will have to be modified if it is to be applied to real life views. He also considers that development of realistic and accurate models of responsiveness to outdoor views should include the differential effects of nature versus built environment.


Berlyne, D.E. (1960), Conflict, Arousal and Curiosity. New York: McGraw-Hill.,

Berlyne, D.E. (1971), Aesthetics and Psychobiology. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Berlyne, D.E. ed. (1974), Studies in the New Experimental Aesthetics, Washinton, DC: John Wiley.

Zuckerman, M. (1977) The development of a situation-specific trait-state test for the prediction and measurement of affective responses. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 45: 513-523.