Does views to nature and the design of spaces matter? A pain stress experiment (2018)

Fich, L. B., Gimmler, A., Petrini, L., Jelic, A., Djebbara, A. Z., & Jönsson, P. (2018)Does views to nature and the design of spaces matter? A pain stress experiment. I Academy of neuroscience for Architecture: Shared Behavioral Outcomes (s. 68-69).

Previously, we have shown that the design of spaces can influence the physiological stress reaction to psychosocial stress in terms of the stress hormone cortisol [1]. In the current experiment, we examined the physiological reaction to a pain stressor (the Cold Pressor Test). We used three different computer models in a virtual environment (a Cave): a closed room, a room with openings onto an empty landscape potentially allowing for escape, and due to the general consensus that a view to nature is de-stressing [e.g. 2,3,4], a room with a view to nature through the openings. We predicted that we would find the highest cortisol level in the closed room and the lowest one in the room with a view to nature. We measured reactivity of the autonomous nervous system (ANS) with high frequency heart rate variability (parasympathetic activity), and T-wave amplitude (sympathetic activity) recording, and HPAaxis reactivity with saliva cortisol levels. I contrast to the previous experiment with psychosocial stress, there was no significant difference in cortisol levels for any condition. There was no significant difference in ANS activation between the closed and open room, but contrary to consensus, the stress reaction was significantly strongest in the nature condition (fig.1).

Figure 1 – Heart rate, reactivity of the autonomous nervous system measured with high frequency heart rate variability (parasympathetic activity), and T-wave amplitude (sympathetic activity – low values corresponds to high activity).

This might be explained by the fact that our experiment, as far as we know, is the only one in which participants have been exposed to the natural setting during both baseline measurements, stressor and a subsequent de-stressing period, while previous experiments solely have concentrated on the de-stressing effect. We have now tested two different stressors in the same computer model with different outcomes (fig.2), implying that the effect of a space depends on a combination of the design and on the events taking place in the space. This hints at the limitations of architecture as architects can only control the design of the environment and challenges one-to-one designs of studies of reaction to architectural stimuli. As the referred experiments is just two limited studies, this calls for further research and for discussion on the affordances of spaces [5,6].

Figure 2 – Participants Saliva cortisol levels measured in Virtual Reality (Cave) computer models of a closed space (closed line) and a space with openings (dotted line), when exposed to a pain stressor (left) and a psychosocial stressor (right). As can be seen, the stress reaction depended on the design of the space as well as on the type of stressful event that took place within the space.


  1. Fich, L.B., Jönsson, P., Kirkegaard, P.H., Wallergård, M., Garde, A.H., Hansen, Å., 2014. Can architectural design alter the physiological reaction to psychosocial stress? A virtual TSST experiment. Physiology & Behavior 135, pp. 91-97
  2. 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, pp. 201-230
  3. Van Den Berg, A.E., Custers, M.H.G., 2011. Gardening Promotes Neuroendocrine and Affective Restoration from Stress. Journal of health Psychology, 16(1), pp. 3-11
  4. Brown, D.K., Barton, J.L., Gladwell, V.F., 2013. Viewing Nature Scenes Positively Affects Recovery of Autonomic Function Following Acute-Mental Stress. Environmental Science & Technology, 47, pp. 5562-5569
  5. Gibson, J.J., 1986. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. New York: Psychology Press; Taylor & Francis Group.
  6. Clark, A., 1999. An embodied cognitive science? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 3(9), pp. 345-351.

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