This blog from BBC Sounds asks “Can immersing ourselves in the sounds and landscapes of nature improve our mental health and wellbeing?” This blog was first published in May 2019.
Many of us lead extraordinarily busy, stressful lives in distinctly urban environments, often lacking any contact with mother nature. City life is undoubtedly exciting and upbeat, but studies have shown that missing out on the benefits of the stimuli present in nature can affect our mental wellbeing and happiness levels, and could actually be crucial to us living a balanced and fulfilled life.
But does nature really need to exist in our own ‘modern’ lives in order to make us happy and mentally well? The BBC Earth team believed this to be the case, and set about validating their theory. In conjunction with The University of California Berkeley they studied the effects on people’s emotions of watching episodes of the nature documentary series Planet Earth II, with study groups involved from global areas as diverse as Europe, India and Australia. What they found was that viewing these clips of nature actually promoted “significant increases in feelings of awe, contentedness, joy, amusement and curiosity”, but also reduced “feelings of tiredness, anger and stress” (read the findings here).
It is certainly beneficial to immerse ourselves in nature from time to time, even watching nature on film can help us to achieve a more positive mental state, but is it actually possible to improve our mental wellbeing by simply listening to the sounds in nature? There are many soothing sounds gleaned from nature which can be bought to provide a background ambient soundtrack to be played at home, in the car, or even at work. Rainforest sounds, surf sounds, gentle bird song – are all supposedly beneficial and relaxing – but do they actually work to actively promote a better mental state of wellbeing?
Brighton and Sussex Medical School researchers wanted to find out, so set about investigating this further by giving subjects two sets of sounds to listen to (natural and artificial) while recording their brain activity on an MRI scanner. Subjects were also given tasks to perform during the experiment to measure attention and reaction time.
They found that the sounds from nature produced brain activity associated with outward-directed focus as well as higher rest-digest nervous system activity associated with a relaxed body state. There was also an improvement in facilitating external attentional monitoring tasks and mental concentration. The artificial sounds created an inward-directed focus of attention – which is brain activity associated with negative states of mind including anxiety, worry, and depression. Interestingly, subjects responded better to sounds from nature that they were familiar with.
“We are all familiar with the feeling of relaxation and ‘switching-off’ which comes from a walk in the countryside,” said the studies leading author Dr Cassandra Gould van Praag. “And now we have evidence from the brain and body which helps us understand this effect.”
These results have been supported by other studies in the field of psychology, indicating any immersion in to the world of nature can greatly improve mental wellbeing. One such study by a PhD psychology student at the University of British Colombia focused on small outcrops of nature in the urban environment, where participants in the study were asked to document and photograph examples of nature in their daily routine and record how they felt about them.
Holli-Anne Passmore who conducted the study said: “This is about the tree at a bus stop in the middle of a city and the positive effect that one tree can have on people.”
Another group photographed human built artefacts, and there was also a control group. Her findings were significant.
“Post-intervention levels of net positive affect, elevating experiences, a general sense of connectedness (to other people, to nature and to life as a whole) and prosocial orientation were significantly higher in the nature group compared to the human-built and control groups” she concluded in her paper.
Nature is literally amazing, it is all around us, but we just need to spend more time observing it. Watching my four-year-old son stop in the street to examine a dandelion growing in between the cracks in the pavement, or to observe an ant scurrying about its business brings a smile not just to his face, but to mine too. He looks at the sky – the moon and stars at night, and the clouds in the day – while I am usually poring over the path ahead, my vision filled with the grey urban landscape. I should learn from him, noticing the natural world is always a wonderful experience and we should all do it a lot more if we want to be happy – even if it is just to watch nature from a distance on our laptop or television screens, or by letting our minds associate with the familiar sounds of nature by listening to it on our stereos or phones. It could be the secret of a contented existence.
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