NW Digest: Technobiophilia

Technobiophilia is a term coined by Sue Thomas. Thomas is a scholar, lecturer, and freelance author who has been studying the intersection of technology and culture since 2003. In her 2013 release, Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace, Thomas brought this idea of technobiophilia to the forefront.  Technobiophilia is defined as “the innate attraction to life and lifelike processes as they appear in technology”. (1)

Thomas expands on this definition by stating:

My research showed that, even in today’s media-rich environment, we are still pulled towards the natural world. This could mean exploring a forest trail, swimming in the ocean, or just tending your garden. But it could also be a visit to a park in Second Life, gazing an animated waterfall cascading down a screensaver, or ‘liking’ photo of a sunset shared on Facebook. Our urge for contact with nature can restore energy, alleviate mental fatigue, and enhance attention, and it is surprisingly transferable to digital environments. Technobiophilic practices and artefacts have one or more of the following features. They:

  • connect our lives in nature with our lives in the digital
  • contribute to well-being via a tech-nature balance
  • support future biodiversity as technology and nature move closer together.(1)

The concept of technobiophilia may seem a little foreign to some. Can technology really help people connect with nature? Wouldn’t it just make more sense to have people turn off their devices and get outside?  Well, yes, that is probably the best way to connect with nature. But what about those times getting outside isn’t possible? Can technology be a supportive tool for nature connection? My answer to these question is also yes!  

Research That Supports Technobiophilia

Virtual Images

Thomas says in her explanation of technobiophilia that gazing at waterfall on a screen can have similar benefits as watching one in real life. This statement is backed up by research done at  University of Waterloo where they discovered that exposure to a virtual forest decreased stress.(2) One possible reason for this positive response to a virtual experience is Attention Restoration Theory. 

Attention Restoration Theory was developed in 1980 by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan.  This theory suggests that “the mesmerizing quality of nature . . .allows us to recuperate from attention-sapping and often hyperstimulating modern life.”(2) Basically, when we are in nature, and when we see nature, our brains are able to relax.  

I actually tried my own experiment along these lines when I returned to the office after the pandemic restrictions were lifted. I put a forest background on my laptop and second monitor. The background changed from one idyllic forest setting to another in 30 minutes increments.  Now I am quite aware that my experiment was a long way from any rigorous scientific study, but I believe having a forest scene in my peripheral vision was beneficial.  It had a calming effect on me. I was actually surprised at how much I appreciated the “trees”.   

Computer background: Trees
My computer background image

Nature Sounds

There is also plenty of research on the benefits of nature sounds on our well-being. “Scientists at the University of Surrey have been studying the ‘restorative benefits of bird song’”.(3) What they discovered was that “of all the natural sounds, bird songs and calls were those most often cited as helping people recover from stress, and allowing them to restore and refocus their attention”.(3) 

Another study done by researchers at Colorado State University, Michigan State University and the U.S. National Park Service revealed similar results. These scientists did a meta-analysis of the current data on the benefits of nature sounds. Their research revealed that some sounds were more beneficial to humans than others.  “Bird song, for example, reduced stress the most. Water sounds improved positive emotions and health outcomes most.” (4)  One interesting note about this study is that the researchers reported that a majority of the evidence was gathered from sound recordings. Therefore, through this study we find support for the technobiophilia hypothesis that suggests some nature benefits are transferable through technology

The challenge with virtual nature connection

There are, however, some limits to the benefits of technologically assisted nature experiences. Clemson University professor Matthew Browning, reports that “physical trees, plants, and other vegetation offer myriad benefits, from the absorption of air pollutants and noise to the secretion of chemicals known as phytoncides which boost our immune system.”(2) These biological benefits can not be replicated in the virtual world. So, although we may see some benefits from a virtual nature connection, we are not getting the full range benefits that we would experience if we spent time outside.

Black Swallowtail Butterfly
Black Swallowtail

In Thomas’s work she recognizes that technology can’t replace nature. Instead she suggests that we can use technology to enhance our connection to nature. The key is to strike the balance between the use of technology and being outdoors.  (We have talked a little bit about this in our previous discussion on building a Virtual Nature Community)  I support Thomas’s ideas on technobiophilia and believe that technology has the potential to provide us with inspiration, information, and guidance around our personal connection to nature. This can happen through sharing of photos, nature based websites and blogs, live nature cameras, computer apps, and podcasts.  Each one of these modes of communication has the potential for its own deep dive. But for today, I want to just talk about podcasts.

Podcast that support nature connection

Podcast are great ways to learn about any subject out there. There are so many people out there creating great content that you are bound to find something that sparks your interest. I personally have a desire to learn more about the natural world.  My interests in this area range from learning specifics about biology or botany to the ways that other cultures have interacted with the land. Below are three of my favorite podcast that support my nature connection practice.

Bioneers

The Bioneers: Revolution From the Heart of Nature is an award-winning, international radio and podcast series. . . It highlights diverse voices of grassroots leaders and voices that are often marginalized or excluded by corporate media. The programs cover a wide range of topics, including intelligence in nature, climate justice, food and farming, gender equity, Indigenous knowledge, reigning in corporate power, and youth activism. (Excerpt from Bioneer.org)

One of my recent favorite episodes is “Under The Skin, We’re All Kin: Reading the Minds of Animals“. In this episode naturalist, author, and conservationist Carl Safina, explores how scientist are finding more proof that intelligence and consciousness appear everywhere nature.

Find out more by going to Bioneer.org

Ologies

“Take away a pocket full of science knowledge and charming, bizarre stories about what fuels these professional -ologists’ obsessions. Humorist and science correspondent Alie Ward asks smart people stupid questions and the answers might change your life.” (Excerpt from Ologies on Apple Podcasts)

On of my recent favorite episodes is “Urban Rodentology (SEWER RATS) with Bobby Corrigan“. In this episode Alie Ward talks with Dr. Robert Corrigan about “rats’ origin story, the difference between a rat and a mouse, where they live, their preferred “food dialects,” and how to (hopefully humanely) keep one out of your house.” This is a very fun episode!

Find out more by going to AlieWard.com 

One in Nature Podcast with Pamela Wirth & Kat Novotna

One in Nature seeks to provide mindful nature connections for everyday life.  The podcast features timely practices for uplifting, heart centered and transformative experiences with nature. Their mission is to bring people and the world of nature closer by interviewing leading edge contributors about nature based wellbeing, greater balance and sense of belonging within the web of life. They hope to spark many moments of heartfelt connection between people and nature beings everywhere. (Adapted from One in Nature on Buzzsprout)

On of my recent favorite episodes is “Disentangling ADHD Tangles: Sentinels in Green Biomass“. In this episode, Wirth and Novotna talk with Dr. Samuel Dismond as he explains “an evolutionary perspective on what is commonly called ADD/ADHD”.

Find out more go to One in Nature on Buzzsprout.

Garden Nasturtium
Garden Nasturtium

What are your thoughts about technobiophilia?  Do you have a favorite nature connection podcast?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Resources:

  1. Sue Thomas Life Nature Technology
  2. Washington Post: Can virtual nature be a good substitute for the great outdoors? The science says yes
  3. The Guardian: Natural high: why birdsong is the best antidote to our stressful lives
  4. USNews: Waves Lapping, Birds Singing: Nature’s Sounds Bring Healing, Study Finds

18 thoughts on “NW Digest: Technobiophilia

Add yours

  1. This is such valuable information, Mark. And it makes me really, really happy to know that technology can offer many benefits, because so many people don’t have access (whether geographical or financial or…) to nature. Thank you for this post. 🙂

    1. Hi Tracy, I am glad that you enjoyed the post. I also appreciate that there are people out there studying this stuff. And it kind of makes sense when you go to Instagram and you can find 1000s of pictures of sunsets.

  2. This is great, Mark! I have saved this post so I can go back and follow the links later. There really are so many people studying interesting and relevant things to our lives that I prepare to re-enter the work world I’m studying everything I can trying to find “my place in the world.” All I know is that I want to be one of these people; someone at the forefront of improving the world through nature, people and technology.

    1. Hi Melanie, I am pleased to hear that you found this useful. It was one of those posts that I thought was going to be really quick but ended up taking hours to research and write. I was just thinking today about how this work, Nature Deficit Disorder, and that One with Nature podcast on ADD/ADHD fit together. It is all very interesting. I’m sure you will find your place and change the world!

  3. An illuminating post… it’s easy to fall into the thinking of technology and nature as distinctly separate. As in: “Tech is good for work, entertainment, and connection with other people. Nature is wholesome and gives us relief from technology overload.” But if technology can give us doses of nature, that’s lovely. Maybe these are small bites, like hors d’oeuvres at a party. And when we leave the party’s house, we can inhale fresh air and see tree branches lightly sway from a breeze.

  4. Reading this post was the first time I encountered the concept of technobiophilia. I personally rely on nature sounds to help me relax. Growing up in NC and living in NM for a few years, I realized how much I depended on the sound of crickets to make me feel at home! I used to listen to recordings to help me sleep while I was living in the desert climate.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience! I was just noticing the crickets this morning. They are just coming out up here in northern Vermont. I can see how they could help you relax.

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