Nature Imagery

Humans live in environments that are increasingly removed from nature, which are often accompanied by stress and anxiety, emotions that decrease our potential to enjoy and fully experience life. 

We need nature for our physical and psychological well-being. But increasingly, many humans are living in environments that are removed from nature, leading to a lifestyle that is often accompanied by stress and anxiety, emotions that decrease our potential to enjoy and fully experience life.

Many studies have shown that experiences with real nature and exposure to nature imagery reduces stress, anxiety, and aggression, in a wide range of venues, including hospitals, schoolrooms, and assisted living centers.

science in prisons

One of the most violent and stressful human environments is inside correctional facilities, where real nature is almost entirely inaccessible to inmates and staff. With the growth of the incarcerated population of the USA, many corrections systems have created facilities and procedures to isolate certain inmates from the general prison population into intensive management units (IMUs) (also known as Supermax, administrative segregation, special housing).  The use of isolation now exists in 44 states, with an estimated 30,000 to 80,000 inmates. Within these isolation units, violent infractions are often prevalent, stress levels are high, and work tends to be more onerous for officers and other staff.

The use of nature imagery as a means of reducing stress and aggression has only minimally been used for reducing stress in prison environments, and nearly always with static images such as murals.

In 2013, staff at the Snake River Correctional Institution (SRCI) initiated a Nature Imagery Project and began a collaboration with Dr. Nalini Nadkarni (University of Utah). SRCI chose to provide nature-related video and sounds in an IMU as an intervention to help reduce stress and violence. Other collaborators in the fields of nature media, ecopsychology, and corrections research were invited to the project.

The literature on the stress-reducing properties of nature suggest that this approach could provide a low-cost way to improve behavior in the IMU and in venues that lack direct access to nature, such as senior assisted living centers, military bases, and refugee camps.

We describe project implementation and plans for research for an intervention that involves offering nature imagery in the form of nature films to a group of adult males in the Intensive Management Unit (IMU) of a state prison in Oregon. Due to the abundant evidence that exposure to nature is effective in reducing stress, violence, and aggression, and improving psychological states and cognitive skills, bringing nature imagery to inmates in IMUs may be beneficial. It is difficult or impossible to bring real nature (plants, soils, live animals) inside IMU facilities, but projecting images of nature inside the facility is a potentially cost-effective option that requires little infrastructure and staff time.

In 2013 at the Snake River Correctional Institution (SRCI) in Oregon, a committee (the “Forward-Thinking Committee”) composed of upper-level administrators, mental health professionals, captains, and officers was formed to investigate the challenges and benefits of providing nature imagery to reduce violence and improve behavior. The SRCI is a large (3,000 bed) state prison that has custody at all security levels, including five blocks of IMU and mental health units. The Forward-Thinking Committee consulted with experts in ecopsychology, evaluation of criminal behavior, and natural history/ecology to generate ideas for implementing the Nature Imagery Project in IMU settings.

In April 2013, SRCI staff installed a projector 4 m above the floor to project a nature video with sound onto the upper part of one wall of an IMU recreation room. Inmates were allowed the choice of viewing or not viewing a video during their regularly scheduled recreation time. Nature imagery videos were gathered by prison staff; topics included nature scenes such as ocean waves, forests, beaches, and other biomes. The recreation room with the projector was painted a light blue color and became known as the “Blue Room”. In a few cases, time in the Blue Room was offered at the discretion of an officer to calm an agitated inmate. Videos were never withheld as a punishment.

Approximately one year after SRCI staff began the Nature Imagery Project, a research team (based at University of Utah) was assembled to study the impact of the program on IMU inmates and prison staff. The team is currently awaiting research approvals from the University of Utah Institutional Review Board and the Oregon Department of Corrections. Once approvals are received, the team will use a mixed-methods approach to better understand and document the impacts of the nature imagery. A January 2015 research start date is projected.

Nalini Nadkarni – University of Utah

Tierney Thys – National Geographic

Patricia Hasbach – Northwest Ecotherapy, Lewis and Clark College

Emily Gaines – University of Utah

For publications about the Nature Imagery project, please click here.

Andersen, H., Sestoft, D., Lillebæk, T., Gabrielsen, G., & Hemmingsen, R. (2003). A longitudinal study of prisoners on remand Repeated measures of psychopathology in the initial phase of solitary versus nonsolitary confinement. International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 26, 165-177.

Brown, J.M. (1984). Imagery coping strategies in the treatment of migraine, Pain, 18 (2), 157-167.

Chang, C.-Y., & Chen, P.-K. (2005). Human responses to window views and indoor plants in the workplace. HortScience, 40, 1354-1359.

Diette, G. B., Lechtzin, N., Haponik, E., Devrotes, A., & Rubin, H. R. (2003). Distraction therapy with nature sights and sounds reduces pain during flexible bronchoscopy. Chest, 123, 141–148.

Dijkstra, K., Pieterse, M.E., & Pruyn, A. (2008). Stress-reducing effects of indoor plants in the built healthcare environment: The mediating role of perceived attractiveness. Previa Medica, 47, 279-283.

Endicott, J., Spitzer, R.L., Fleiss, J.L., & Cohen, J. (1976). The Global Assessment Scale: A procedure for measuring overall severity of psychiatric disturbance. Archives of General Psychiatry, 33, 766-771.

Finn, P. (2000). Addressing Correctional Officer Stress: Programs and Strategies. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice.

Fjeld, T. (2000). The effect of interior planting on health and discomfort among workers and school children. HortTechnology, 10, 46-52.

Frumkin, H. (2012). Building the science base: Ecopsychology meets clinical epidemiology. In P. H. Kahn, Jr., and P. H. Hasbach (Eds.). Ecopsychology: Science, totems, and the technological species (pp. 141-172). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Grassian, S. & Friedman N. (1986). Effects of sensory deprivation in psychiatric seclusion and solitary confinement. International Journal of Law & Psychiatry, 8,49-65.

Hamilton, M. (1960). A rating scale for depression. Journal of Neurological Neurosurgery and Psychiatry. 23,56-69.

Haney, C. (2003). Mental health issues in long-term solitary and “supermax” confinement. Crime and Delinquency. 49, 124-156.

Hartig, T.M., Evans, G.W., Jamner, L.D., Davis, D.S., & Gärling, T (2003). Tracking restoration in natural and urban field settings. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 23, 109-123.

Hasbach, P. (2012). Ecotherapy. In P. H. Kahn, Jr., & P. H. Hasbach (Eds.), Ecopsychology: Science, totems, and the technological species (pp. 115-139). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Heerwagen, J. H. (1990). The psychological aspects of windows and window design. In K. H. Anthony, J. Choi, & B. Orland (Eds.), Proceedings of the 21st Annual Conference of the Environmental Design Research Association. Oklahoma City, OK: Environmental Design Research Association.

Heerwagen, J. H. & Orians, G. H. (1993). Humans, habitats, and aesthetics. In Kellert, S. R. and Wilson, E. O. (eds) The Biophilia Hypothesis. Shearwater Books/Island Press, Washington, DC, pp. 138–172.

Hung, M.-F., & Chan, C.-Y. (2002). The effect of plants on preschool children’s attention in the classroom. Horticulture NCHU, 27, 77-86.

Jones, D. L., Tanigawa, T. & Weiss, S.M. (2003). Stress Management and Workplace Disability in the US, Europe and Japan. Journal of Occupational Health, 45,1-7.

Kahn, P. H., Jr. (1999). The human relationship with nature: Development and culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kahn, P. H., Jr. (2011). Technological nature: Adaptation and the future of human life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kaplan R. (1993). The role of nature in the context of the workplace. Landscape Urban Planning, 26, 193–201.

Kaplan, R. & Kaplan, S. (1989). The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Kellert, S. R., & Wilson, E. O. (Eds.). (1993). The Biophilia hypothesis. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Kickbusch, I. (1989). Approaches to an ecological base for public health. Health Promotion, 4, 265–268.

King, K., Steiner, B., and Breach, S. (2008). Violence in the supermax: a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Prison Journal, 88,144-168.

Korpela, K. &Ylén, M. (2007). Perceived health is associated with visiting natural favorite places in the vicinity. Health Place, 13, 138-151.

Kuo, F.E., Bacaicoa, M., & Sullivan, W.C. (1998). Transforming inner city landscapes: Trees, sense of place and preference. Environmental Behaviour, 33, 343-367.

Kuo, F. E., & Sullivan, W. C. (2001a). Aggression and violence in the inner city: Effects of environment via mental fatigue. Environment and Behavior, 33 (4), 543–571.

Kuo, F. E., & Sullivan, W. C. (2001b). Environment and crime in the inner city: Does vegetation reduce crime? Environment and Behavior, 33 (3), 343–367.

Kuo, F. E. (2001). Coping with poverty: Impacts of environment and attention in the inner city. Environment and Behavior, 33 (1), 5–34.

Kurki, L., & Morris, N. (2001). The purposes, practices, and problems of supermax prisons. Crime and Justice, 28, 1‐21.

Lalonde, M. (1974). A New Perspective on the Health of Canadians. Government of Canada, Ottawa.

Leather, P., Pyrgas, M., Beale, D. & Lawrence, C. (1998). Windows in the workplace. Environment and Behaviour, 30, 739–763.

Lewis, C. A. (1996). Green Nature/Human Nature: The Meaning of Plants in our Lives. University of Illinois Press, Chicago.

Lohr, V.I.,  Pearson-Mims, C.H., & Goodwin, G.K. (1996). Interior plants may improve worker productivity and reduce stress in a windowless environment. Journal of Environmental Horticulture, 14, 97-100.

Lovell, G., Cloyes, P., Allen, R., & Rhodes, L. (2000). Who lives in super-maximum custody? A Washington State study. Federal Probation, 64, 33-38.

Malenbaum, S., Keefe, A., Williams, A., Ulrich, R., and Somers, T. (2008).  Pain in its environmental context: implications for designing environments to enhance pain control. Pain, 134,241-244.

Mather, M. (2007). Emotional arousal and memory binding: An object- based framework. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 33-52.

McCormack, H.M., de L. Horne, D.J., and Sheather, S. (1988). Clinical applications of visual analogue scales: a critical review. Psychological Medicine, 8, 1007.

Mears, D. (2005). A critical look at Supermax prisons. Corrections Compendium, 30, 45–49.

Mears, D. (2006). Evaluating the Effectiveness of Supermax Prisons“, Urban Institute, March.

Moore, E. O. (1981). A prison environment’s effect on health care service demands. Journal of Environmental Systems, 11, 17–34.

Orians, G. H. (1980). Habitat selection: general theory and applications. In The Evolution of Human Social Behavior, Lockard, J. S.(Eds.). New York: Elsevier North Holland Inc.

Parsons, R., Tassinary, L. G., Ulrich, R. S., Hebl, M. R. & Grossman-Alexander, M. (1998). The view from the road: implications for stress recovery and immunisation. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 18, 113–140.

Pizarro, J., & Stenius, V. M.K. (2004). Supermax Prisons: Their rise, current practices, and wffect on inmates. The Prison Journal 84, 248–264.

Plante, T. G., Cage, C., Clements, S., & Stover, A. (2006). Psychological benefits of exercise  paired with virtual reality: outdoor exercise energizes while indoor virtual exercise relaxes. International Journal of Stress Management, 3, 108-117.

Rhodes, L. (2004). Total Confinement. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Riveland, C. (1999). Prison Management Trends, 1975–2025.” In Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, eds, M. H. Tonry and J. Petersilia (163–203). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rohde, C. L. E., & Kendle, A. D. (1994). Report to English Nature—Human Well-being, Natural Landscapes and Wildlife in Urban Areas. A Review. University of Reading, Department of Horticulture and Landscape and the Research Institute for the Care of the Elderly, Bath.

Seabrook, N. (2005). Prison violence on the rise. USA Today Magazine, 134, 28-29.

Shalev, S. (2009). Supermax: controlling risk by solitary confinement. Cullompton: Willan Publishing.

Shibata, S., & Suzuki, N. (2001). Effects of indoor foliage plants on subjects’ recovery from mental fatigue. North American Journal of Psychology, 3, 385-396.

Starkey, D., Deleone, H. & Flannery, R. B. (1995). Stress Management for psychiatric patients in a state hospital setting. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 65, 446–450.

Taylor, A. F., Kuo, F. E., & Sullivan, W. C. (2002). Views of nature and self-discipline: Evidence from inner city children. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 22(1–2), 49–63.

Tennessen, C.M., and  Cimprich, B. (1995). Views to nature: effects on attention. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15, 77-85.

Ulrich, R. S. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 224, 420-421.

Ulrich, R. S. (1993). Biophilia, biophobia, and natural landscapes. In S. R. Kellert & E. O. Wilson (Eds.), The Biophilia hypothesis (pp. 73-137). Washington, DC: Island Press.

Ulrich, R. S., Simons, R. F., Losito, B. D., Fiorito, E., Miles, M. A., & Zelson, M. (1991). Stress recovery during exposure to natural and urban environments. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 11, 201–230.

Webb, L. R.  (2001). Addressing severe behavior problems in a “super-max” prison setting. Salem, OR: Oregon State Penitentiary.

West, M. I. (1985). Landscape views and stress response in the prison environment. Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Washington, Seattle.

Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Yudofsky, S. C., Silver, J. M., Jackson, W., Endicott, J., & Williams, D. (1986). The Overt Aggression Scale for the objective rating of verbal and physical aggression.American Journal of Psychiatry, 143, 35-39.