An immersive installation and a psychology experiment

Why do natural environments restore our mental resources?

The project aims to explore the idea of 'soft fascination', based on research which has shown that walking through natural environments relaxes and restores attention in such a way that we are better able to focus and concentrate.

Can immersive art recreate the effects on attention?

Live experiments were carried out in the gallery

Results to be published soon

Where and When

Exhibition Space, Royal Holloway University. 

24 April- 14 July 2018 

The exhibition has ended.

Scroll down for images and video documentation.

Digital Forest Team



Professor of Psychology at Royal Holloway University and Director of the Attention Lab

More Info


Professor of Composition at Guildhall. Composer and Sound Artist

The Theory and the Art

Digital Forest is part of an ongoing interdisciplinary collaboration between artist Madi Boyd and cognitive scientist Prof. Polly Dalton. Digital Forest will be a multi-sensory moving image installation using sculpture, tactile encounters and 32 channel sound. The work is informed by attention research – specifically, the theory that ‘soft fascination’ provided by natural environments restores people’s mental resources and helps focus attention (Kaplan, 1995; 2001). In collaboration with Dalton, I will research and experiment with what factors produce the restorative effects of a forest, including: form, light, movement, scale, touch, depth of field, dispersed sounds, level of complexity, mystery and underlying geometry. These will be incorporated into an abstracted performative and immersive experience, embodying the sublime theatricality of a real forest. The audience will traverse a large dark space where sound and choreographed complex projected patterns, and constructions will ‘perform’, vistas will unexpectedly open up and surfaces and walls will provide haptic adventures . We want to achieve an original and memorable art experience that will also foster debates and provoke questions and ideas about multi-sensory perception in installation art, and the influence of evolutionary habitats on aesthetic preference. 

We also want to achieve original research into the restorative effects of installation art, such as: can particular environments help with mental well-being? If so, why? 

Want to see documentation of the exhibition?

This short video gives an idea of how the eventual installation looked and sounded. Of course it doesn't fully capture the multi-sensory experience!

We have been generously supported by

Digital Forest News

Review of the Exhibition


Walking into Digital Forest is immediately disconcerting, the contrast between the bright auditorium and the darkness of the exhibition space blinds you almost completely. Disorientated, other senses strain in a vain attempt to re-center yourself. A lack of sound becomes apparent, but slowly the silence is replaced by the familiar, though unexpected, sounds of birdsong. Eventually, unnoticed, your eyes adjust until visual stimuli are once again the dominant focus. Ethereal flecks of light dance across your visual field and though you can see them, no sense can be made of what it is you are processing. Even the most basic of depth cues have been stolen from you. The initial anxiety ebbs. The mesmerising monochrome movement; subtle enough not to be jarring, rhythmic enough to be calming; is dynamic enough to maintain your attention. Unthinkingly, you reach forward meeting a web of glistening strings, fingers spread and test, they are taught like a harp. You have changed the pattern, no longer is it predictable, yet still it is impossible to gauge where it ends. Eventually you turn. Still hesitant explorations lead to an impression of an organic dappled canopy, indistinct light forms creating a placid parody of a breeze. Moving on you enter a gauzy, low-hanging thicket, which soon becomes a glade. Here the ambience changes. Brighter now, clear leafy shapes are distinguishable, caught suspended in autumn shedding. There is a levity here in this still moment, a need to weave between the leaves, playing, touching; carefree and calm. This air seems crisper, clearer, you feel rejuvenated; restored.

Digital Forest is a collaboration between the Artist Madi Boyd, the Psychologist Polly Dalton and the Sound Specialist Nye Parry. Boyd has a history of working in collaboration, especially with Neuroscientists. Her work seeks to define the blurred and mysterious perceptual tipping point between random light and form. Her previous installations have combined spaces, hanging threads, mirrors and projections, challenging an audience’s depth, size and orientation perception. This particular installation experience was designed to allow the scientific determination of whether an urban environment, designed to replicate a natural forest, can instill similar restorative effects in its visitors as a visit to a natural forest would. This research, and its results, have the potential to influence widely, from urban planning to hospital design. 

The scientific undertones of the project, however, are an afterthought as the marvel is encountered. The initial sensual muting deprives you of the mechanisms normally completely relied upon for an ‘experience’, and thus distracts completely from any earlier thought. Though Boyd uses no oil paints, the entire installation can be likened to a 3-dimensional, millennial rendering of Impressionism. Members of her audience leave the space relaxed, with no doubt that they have just spent time around a forest pool, wandering through a deep forest and a meadow-like glade; while, in fact, never having experienced anything more than videos, a sound track, layered threads, gauze and satin flutters. This is evident from the overwhelmingly complimentary comments left in the visitors' book. Students particularly, returned again and again to calm themselves, acknowledging the disparity between the installation and the library. The artistry Boyd possesses, to be able to imbue this effect with the synthetic materials used, should be celebrated.

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