When you think of nature, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Is it the lush and vibrant color green, or the yellow and orange shades of autumn? Is it the feeling of water rustling through your toes as you dip your feet into a narrow creek. Or could it be the smell of pollen and wet pine on a rainy spring day?
For me it is the sounds of nature that give me a powerful sense of nostalgia and bring me back to fond memories of my childhood.
Regardless of our own personal preferences, spending time in nature is universally recognized as distinctly relaxing and pleasant. This, in part, is because being immersed in nature is a powerful multi-sensory experience where all our senses are heightened.
Of all the senses that are stimulated during our interactions with nature, for many the sounds of nature only play in the background, often overshadowed by vision and smell. Yet, it would be hard to imagine stepping into a forest without hearing the birds singing and the wind whistling through the leaves. Or to take a walk by the shore without hearing the waves crashing on the rocks or washing smoothly off the sand.
There is no doubt that nature has many benefits for humans, and an emerging field of research is pointing to the positive effects that the sounds of nature have on human health and wellbeing. Recent study led by Alex Smalley from the University of Exeter in the UK analyzed data gathered from over 7,500 people who participated in the BBC’s series Forest 404. In the study, participants listened to a range of soundscapes, from coastal and woodland settings in the UK, to a tropical rainforest in Papua New Guinea.
Researchers simulated changes to each environment by varying audible features of these environments. Participants reported therapeutic effects from listening to landscape elements such as breaking waves or falling rain. Listening to wildlife and bird songs also enhanced the participants’ capacity to bounce back from stress and mental fatigue. But the research on this subject is far from ending there.
Another study led by Cassandra D. Gould van Praag from the Psychiatry Department at Oxford University in the UK outlined the neurological effects of natural sounds in comparison to artificial ones. Seventeen adult participants listened to a series of five-minute sound clips of both natural and man-made environments. As each clip was played, the scientists scanned the participants’ brain activity using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machines that measure brain responses to specific stimuli.
The participants’ heart rate was also measured. The authors discovered that when listening to natural sounds, the participants’ heart rate decreased compared to when they listened to artificial sounds, pointing to the relaxation effect of the sounds of nature. Exposure to natural soundscapes was also associated with increased activity in the parts of the brain that have different functions, such as emotions, behaviors, and motivation. Meanwhile, artificial sounds, like the sound of traffic and construction, were shown to decrease concentration and increase attentional focus inwards which may lead to excessive thoughts or worries about oneself and is associated with depression and anxiety.
The importance of exposure to natural sounds is also highlighted in the 2021 research article written by Rachel T. Buxton from the Biology Department at Carleton University in Canada. Buxton argues that ‘natural soundscapes’ are gradually disappearing as spices that produce sounds, such as birds, are threatened by the expanding urban development. With urbanization, she argues, noise pollution also grows posing an additional threat to wildlife whose health is affected by the alterations in their environment. At the same time, human beings also pay a price for these alterations in environmental acoustics: the prominence of man-made sounds in urban environments and the little exposure to natural sounds induces fatigue in people living in the city.
This observation is intriguing, especially when one considers that mental health conditions are on sharp increase globally. According to the World Health Organization, between 2007 and 2017 there has been a 13% increase in mental health problems and substance use disorders worldwide. With the continuous expansion of urban developments and the associated depletion of the natural environment there are reasons to worry that this trend may be in part due to the increasing separation of human beings from nature.
Given that listening to the sounds of nature may improve our physical and mental health, how can those of us living in places with high noise pollution still reap the benefits of exposure to the sounds of nature?
Tip 1 Recognize that sound, like the other senses, is a medium through which we connect with the outside world. Listening to the sounds of nature alone, even when we are not physically immersed in nature, will immediately affect our brain and impact our mental state. So, if you live in a crowded city that offers little respite from noise pollution, you may want to put technology to its best use and find one of innumerable YouTube playlists featuring a wide range of nature sounds.
Tip 2 Learn what sounds you respond to the most and remember that in addition to their health benefits, nature sounds can be a great source of inspiration as well. Each of us reacts differently to different sounds and it is important that you know what nature sound will ease off the stress, recharge you or energize you.
Research has shown that different soundscapes can have different effects depending on the person, but also on your mood. Whether you like painting, playing an instrument, reading a book, or meditating, the point is to be proactive and reap the benefits of natural energy the way that feels right to you. It is also speculated that how we respond to sounds may be connected to past experiences and memories, so take this as an opportunity to be introspective and learn more about yourself. If you’d like to learn more about you respond to different soundscapes, follow this link for an interactive self-assessment video.
Tip 3 Explore your city to find your nature oasis. Remember that nature is everywhere, even if not exactly in ways that you expect it. We tend to think of nature in a romantic sense, as the lush, wild and remote areas of the Amazon or the Rocky Mountains. But even in the most crowded of places, if you really pay attention, you will find nature is always with you in one form or another. Start looking from where you are. Do you have any house plants? Can you see the sky from your window? How close are you to a park? Go out and explore your neighbourhood on a mission to find a spot of nature that you can connect with. When you have found your spot, spend some time in it and immerse yourself in the sounds of the place.
Tip 4 Advocate for nature preservation. Look for nature conservation and ecological initiative in your community. Do some research on local organizations, reach out and learn more about their work. You may volunteer, fundraise or even start your own community initiative and take matters into your own hands. Working with others on a cause that you care about will motivate you to deepen your connection with nature and will make you feel that you belong to a community of likeminded people.
What I experience when I immerse myself in the sounds of nature reminds me of how important it is to preserve our natural environment. Humankind has a profound bond with nature. A bond that if broken, could have irreversible effects on our health and wellbeing. So now, more than ever, is the time to cherish and preserve our connection to this beautiful planet.