The Mental Benefits of Listening to Natural Sounds
Imagine your happy place. Think of sights, sounds, and smells. Did you picture a place in a natural setting? Did you hear the leaves falling on the ground or waves crashing onto a beach? Did you smell a breeze of salty air or the fresh sky after the first rain?
Many people seek out nature to relax, but is there scientific evidence that demonstrates these results? Let us discuss the benefits of nature, specifically sound, on your mental wellbeing.
The effects of the environment on your brain can be quite remarkable. The field of environmental psychology, though new, is making important discoveries about the benefits of nature for our minds.
One prominent area of study in this field is Attention Restoration Theory. This theory discusses the role of a restorative environment in recovering your directed attention. Directed attention describes the process that your mind undergoes when focusing. It states that directing your attention is a two-part task. One part of your mind focuses on the task requiring your focus. Another part stops distractions to allow you to maintain this focus.
Attention Restoration Theory states that humans process natural stimuli without top-down processing.¹ As top-down processing requires higher-order mental cognition, natural stimuli allow for a cognitive break. This break allows the brain to recover its ability to sustain directed attention.² The natural environment acts as a break from our often overstimulating artificial environments.
Another prominent area of study in this field is Stress Recovery Theory. This theory discusses how exposure to natural stimuli reduces stress. It states that humans have positive evolutionary associations with nature.³ These positive associations with nature allow for relaxation when exposed to natural stimuli.
Most of the research regarding these theories focuses on how visual stimulation from nature can help improve your mental well-being. These studies demonstrate the clear benefits of taking micro-breaks in a natural environment. Scientists see these benefits even when participants just look at images of nature.⁴ New research seeks to determine whether auditory stimulation from nature shows the same benefits.
There are three main areas where natural soundscapes demonstrate positive effects on mental wellbeing:
Multiple studies demonstrate the stress reduction propensities of natural soundscapes.
In one study, researchers wanted to test whether exposure to natural sounds helps to reduce stress. They measured stress using reported stress level, heart rate, and muscle tension. The participants who listened to natural sounds for a brief time (less than seven minutes) reported reduced stress levels and demonstrated improvement from the physiological symptoms of stress.⁵
One exciting implication of this finding is using this knowledge to design areas, like break and waiting rooms, so that they introduce natural micro-breaks into the day.
Another study further demonstrated the finding that natural sounds help to reduce stress. Researchers exposed participants to different noise conditions after completing a stressful cognitive task. They found that skin conductance, a measure used to determine stress level, was lower in participants who listened to a natural soundscape for four minutes at 50 dB.⁶ This finding demonstrates a reduction in the amount of stress experienced by the participants.
Improved Cognitive Performance
Cognitive performance is also improved by listening to natural soundscapes. Participants who heard natural soundscapes, rather than urban soundscapes, before performing a cognitive test performed significantly better on the tests.⁸ This research suggests that natural sounds may help with retaining attention in short term cognitive tasks.
One important implication of this finding is benefits in the workplace. Cognition is crucial in a wide variety of functions that our brains perform each day. These include memory, learning, problem solving, and judgment.⁹ Improving performance in these areas can help to create a more productive workplace environment.
Natural soundscapes may also be beneficial in improving your mood.
Researchers found that listening to natural sounds can help improve your mood. They found that listening to nature sounds at 45-50 dB for three minutes after watching a distressing video improved the reported mood ratings of the participants more than other ambient noises.¹⁰ These sounds included a natural soundscape without other noises (recorded at a National park with birds and leaf noises), natural with motorized noises, natural with human voices, or a control silence condition. The participants who listened to the natural soundscape showed the most improvement in their mood after three minutes.¹¹
There is no clear consensus on which type of natural soundscape is the most effective. Incorporating nature micro-breaks into your day can help you to see the cognitive benefits of these studies. These natural auditory micro-breaks can be effective even in periods less than 10 minutes.
To incorporate these into your life, find a natural soundscape that you find relaxing and listen to it while taking a break from your work. One fantastic resource for finding a natural soundscape that relaxes you is the United States National Park Service. Here is a link to their website: Sound Gallery - Natural Sounds (US National Park Service).
Van Praag, C. D. G., Garfinkel, S. N., Sparasci, O., Mees, A., Philippides, A. O., Ware, M., ... & Critchley, H. D. (2017). Mind-wandering and alterations to default mode network connectivity when listening to naturalistic versus artificial sounds. Scientific Reports, 7, 45273.
Grinde, B., & Patil, G. G. (2009). Biophilia: does visual contact with nature impact on health and well-being?. International journal of environmental research and public health, 6(9), 2332-2343.
Largo-Wight, E., O’Hara, B. K., & Chen, W. W. (2016). The efficacy of a brief nature sound intervention on muscle tension, pulse rate, and self-reported stress: Nature contact micro-break in an office or waiting room. HERD: Health Environments Research & Design Journal, 10(1), 45-51.
Alvarsson, J. J., Wiens, S., & Nilsson, M. E. (2010). Stress recovery during exposure to nature sound and environmental noise. International journal of environmental research and public health, 7(3), 1036-1046.
Van Hedger, S. C., Nusbaum, H. C., Clohisy, L., Jaeggi, S. M., Buschkuehl, M., & Berman, M. G. (2019). Of cricket chirps and car horns: The effect of nature sounds on cognitive performance. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 26(2), 522-530.
Dumper, K., Jenkins, W., Lacombe, A., Lovett, M., & Perlmutter, M. (2014, December 8). 7.1 - What is cognition? Retrieved October 08, 2020, from https://opentext.wsu.edu/psych105/chapter/7-2-what-is-cognition/
Benfield, J. A., Taff, B. D., Newman, P., & Smyth, J. (2014). Natural sound facilitates mood recovery. Ecopsychology, 6(3), 183-188.