Researchers from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom used 3D animation engines to create experimental conditions to understand the impact of ephemeral phenomena, such as the daily rhythms of the sun, on how people feel about the beauty and awe in those environments.
According to Alexander Smalley, a Ph.D. fellow at the University of Exeter and lead research author, people find everyday environments more beautiful and awe-inspiring when ephemeral phenomena influence them.
“Sunrise, sunset and rainbows are some examples that we found that increased not just beauty and awe to participants, but also the value that people attached to urban and natural environments,” said Smalley. “If you want to be wowed when you’re outside wherever you are, you should try and catch these fleeting events.”
Smalley says that despite a significant body of research examining nature’s impacts on mental health, these studies assessed effects under calm, blue skies but that only some have considered how we respond to weather variations and the sun’s daily rhythms.
To create the conditions for the 2,500 participants in the research, the researchers used two 3D animation programs, Nuke and Houdini, to make these effects. Both programs are routinely used to create computer-generated images and movie-grade VFX in TV and film. Smalley says the technology gave them the power to design carefully controlled settings.
“This level of control meant we could replicate the properties between our urban and natural settings, ensuring the proportions of the sky, water and structural features were closely matched,” said Smalley. “We then applied identical ephemeral phenomena across these environments, and this approach allowed us to isolate the effects of environment type and phenomena on our measures.”
Smalley said they could now show the conditions as living stills – a form of video playback that relies on .gif encoding and continuous looping. “This technique replicated a window viewing effect so that all users would immediately experience our stimuli without having to press play and watch for an allotted period.”
Participants in the research could see different ephemeral phenomena – sunrise, thunderstorm, lightning, sunset, etc. – over 24 hours, creating a diurnal pattern.
“We asked people to rate their feelings in response to viewing our experimental conditions according to several scales,” said Smalley. “Some of these scales captured basic emotions; others captured components of emotions or feelings about nature.”
Smalley said participants were assigned to either the urban or natural environment and viewed a total of six randomly organized conditions within that setting. “This allowed us to accommodate biases in how each individual might rate their experience,” said Smalley.
Smalley said that unexpectedly, the paper revealed that a sunrise and a sunset could also trigger significant boosts in people’s feelings of awe. “This is typically a difficult emotion to elicit and research indicates that awe has the potential to improve mood, enhance positive social behavior and increase positive emotions – all valuable factors in enhancing overall wellbeing.”
But Smalley also points out that there is value in understanding the effect of ephemeral phenomena on people.
“Urban and natural settings are typically categorized and valued according to their structural features, such as the presence of water or amount of tree cover, and these features are relatively fixed and tend not to vary over short timescales,” said Smalley. “But this experiment shows, for the first time, that how people experience these environments can change from one moment to the next.”
Smalley says this is a valuable finding for several reasons; the first is the power of the sunrise and sunset to inspire awe. “Awe is a notoriously hard emotion to elicit, but research by a team led by professor and author Dacher Keltner at Berkley has shown it can trigger a host of benefits, including altruism and positive emotions; Keltner is the author of Awe: The new science of everyday wonder which released in January 2023.
“Secondly, our experiment also showed that these effects apply to urban environments. We can now start to move beyond the assumption that towns and cities are places of disvalue and recognize that moments of beauty, awe and wonder can also occur there,” said Smalley.
Smalley says that by attributing a value to these effects like sunrise and sunset, they have taken some first steps at putting them on the radar of urban planning decisions. “Perhaps East and West-facing views and elevated areas – each of which might act as viewing points for ephemera – should be factored into and protected by planning policies,” said Smalley.
Smalley adds that we can learn a lot from these 24-hour patterns.
“Paying greater attention to diurnal patterns, such as the timings of sunrise and sunset, the occurrence of a full moon, or the clear nighttime sky, could help to reconnect people with the natural world,” said Smalley. “There is growing concern that populations in Western societies are spending less time in nature, a trend termed the extinction of experience. By highlighting the rhythms of the day, seasons, weather and climate, we might provide opportunities for people to take note of and place greater value on the natural processes around them.”
The paper was published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.