Hollywood science fiction films imagine future humans in worlds that are no longer green, or never were—from Soylent Green’s dying Earth to that of Interstellar. And from Soylent Green to Ad Astra, humans in the future experience plant and animal life as simulations on a screen, in hyperreal photography and video meant to pacify and comfort. Maybe we live in that world already, to some extent, with apocalyptic films and science fiction expressing a collective mourning for the extinctions brought on by climate change.
“Over the course of my lifetime—I’m 46,” writes Washington Post art critic Sebastian Smee, “the planet has lost more than half of its wildlife populations, according to the World Wildlife Fund.” Surely this brute fact explains the immense popularity of high production-value nature documentaries, the antidote to apocalyptic futurism. They have become “blockbuster events,” argues Ed Yong at The Atlantic, with fandoms as fierce as any.
Viewed “from the perspective of the future,” writes Smee, nature documentaries “are great art. Maybe the greatest of our time.” But can viewing film and photographs of nature produce in us the feelings of awe and wonder that poets, artists, and philosophers have described feeling in actual nature for centuries? BBC Earth, producer of several major blockbuster nature documentary series, undertook some psychological research to find out, partnering with researchers from the University of California, Berkeley.
The team examined the effects of watching the BBC’s Planet Earth II documentary series relative to other kinds of programs. “It is a deep human intuition that viewing nature and being in nature is good for the mind and body,” they write in the study, titled “Exploring the Emotional State of ‘Real Happiness.’” (Sociobiologist E.O. Wilson coined the term “biophilia” to describe the evolved preference for natural beauty.) Does screentime equal physical time spent outdoors? Not exactly, but nature documentaries can lower stress levels and, yes, produce feelings of "real happiness."
There have been several previous such studies. The authors cite one in which a few minutes of the original series Planet Earth “led people, compared to control participants, to feel 45.6% more awe and 31.4% more gratitude, but no shifts in feelings of negative emotions such as fear and sadness.” The Planet Earth II study may be the largest of its kind, with almost 3,500 participants in the U.S., around a thousand in the U.K., India, and Australia, each, and around 500 in both South Africa and Singapore for a total of approximately 7,500 viewers.
Participants across a range of age groups, from 16 to 55 and over, were shown short clips of a variety of TV programs, including clips from Planet Earth II. They were surveyed on an array of emotional responses before and after each viewing. The study also measured stress levels using the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS), and used a facial mapping technology called CrowdEmotion to track physical responses. The researchers aggregated the data and controlled for population size in each country.
The findings are fascinating. Across the scale, Planet Earth II clips generated more feelings of happiness and awe, with clips from news and entertainment shows causing more fear. In most of the study’s measures, these good feelings peaked highest at the lower demographic age range of 16-24. Younger viewers showed greater positive emotional responses in facial mapping and survey data, a fact consistent with BBC ratings data showing that 16-34 year-olds make up around 41% of the audience share for Planet Earth II.
“This younger group,” note the authors, “was more likely to experience significant positive shifts in emotion.” They also started out, before viewing the clips, with significantly more environmental anxiety, scoring highly on the stress scale. 71% described themselves as “extremely worried about the state of the world’s environment and what it will mean for my future.” A smaller percentage showed the lowest level of agreement with the statement “I regularly get outside and enjoy spending time with nature.”
For nearly all of the study’s viewers, nature documentaries seemed to produce at least fleeting feelings of “real happiness.” For many, they may also be a way of countering fears of the future, and compensating in advance for a loss of the natural beauty that remains. Unfortunately, the study did not measure the number of participants who viewed Planet Earth II and other “blockbuster” nature documentaries as a call to action against environmental destruction. Maybe that's a subject for another study. Read the full Planet Earth II study results here. And if you're feeling stressed, watch thirty minutes of "Visual Soundscapes," presented by Planet Earth II, above.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.