Those new high definition plasma screens can take us down a mountain trail with such clarity that it's almost like being there. And that may be too much of a good thing, according to researchers who fear we may be gradually replacing the real world with something they call "technological nature."
With each succeeding generation we raise the bar on technology, and lower the bar on what we expect from the environment around us, according to psychologists at the University of Washington who fear we may be losing something as technology reshapes so much of the world around us.
Psychologist Peter H. Kahn calls it "environmental generational amnesia."
Kahn coined the expression a few years ago after studying how children in several cities around the world perceive their environment.
The children recognized that animals, plants and parks and open spaces played an important role in their lives. They also knew pollution was a bad thing, but children in Houston, for example, didn't realize it had affected their own city in a big way.
Each generation starts with a new baseline understanding of their environment, Kahn concluded, so the kids in Houston were much more likely to accept a polluted environment that would have appalled their ancestors -- because that's what the kids found when they got there.
More recently, Kahn and his University of Washington team have carried out a series of studies on how technology can hinder, or help, our relationship with true nature. They wanted to know, for example, if a large plasma screen can help calm a stressed person as much as looking out a window at a tranquil setting.
The answer, they say in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, is a high def image may help a little, but not as much as the real thing. The results, however, were mixed.
In one experiment, the heart rate was slightly reduced for persons who were mildly stressed after they looked through a window, but the plasma screen was no better than looking at a blank wall.
But in another study, workers in an interior office with no windows were treated to a real-time plasma image of the scene outside their office over a period of several weeks.
In later interviews, the workers told the researchers they were comforted by the images of the world they could not see from their interior office.
"It was better than being in a box," said Jolina H. Ruckert, a doctoral candidate in developmental psychology and a member of Kahn's team. "They could feel connected to the outside world, and they could see the changes in the day, from sunrise to sunset."
So far, so good. But the researchers fear that little dab of help could turn into a liability if the "technological nature" as depicted on the screen gradually -- or perhaps over a few generations -- becomes as real as the real thing.
That's probably not as far fetched as it seems, because the distinction between the two has already become blurred.