Listening to the sounds of nature may facilitate physical and mental healing.
Summer is a time of the year when people usually spend a lot of time outside and many of us, author included, like to be in nature. Some research suggests that humans innately tend to seek connections with nature. We all know the feeling of relaxation when we hear the sound of a forest or ocean waves, partly because nature’s sounds are perceived as more pleasant than technological noise (Alvarsson, J. et al. 2010). So here is a question: Can the sound of nature help heal our body and brain? Let’s see what the research says.
Most studies concentrated on the sounds of the forest, bird songs, ocean waves, and waterfalls. An interesting study was done in 2021 (Buxton, R.T. et al.). The researchers identified 36 publications that examined the health benefits of natural sounds (animal, wind, and water sounds). The meta-analysis of 18 of them showed evidence for improved health, decreased stress, improved mood, and enhanced cognitive performance. The researchers concluded that natural parks that offer plenty of natural sounds can boost public health.
Some studies suggest that exposure to natural sounds can improve attention. In a 2023 study (Song, I. et al.), university students were exposed to nature’s sounds (valley water and birds in the forest sounds) and an urban sound (a road traffic sound) while completing attention tasks (Harris and Harris grid). The scores on the attention tasks were higher when the subjects were exposed to natural sounds.
Several studies suggested that nature’s sounds reduce stress hormones, boost positive mindset, and make us feel more comfortable and relaxed. Also, our negative moods lower while positive moods increase (Song, I. et al.). Some research suggests that listening to nature’s sounds helps heal our body, restore its natural balance, boost our mood, reduce anxiety, and increase a feeling of well-being (White, M.E. et al.2023.).
The sound of a fountain and tweeting birds may facilitate recovery from the activation of our sympathetic nervous system, which occurs when we are stressed, in danger, or physically active. This may be a reason why people like to have fountains and birdbaths in their backyards to help them relax, especially after a stressful day. Some studies suggest that water sounds have the most effect on health and positive affective outcomes, while bird sounds have the most effect on alleviating stress. Nature sounds may change the connections in our brain and help diminish the body’s response to stress (fight-or-flight response).
There are also studies that investigate whether natural sounds can be used in the treatment of some mental health disorders. An interesting study was done in Japan (Ochiai, H. et al.2020). The researchers were studying the physiological and psychological reactions of male patients with gambling disorders. The subjects were exposed to high-definition forest or city sounds using headphones. Heart rate and heart rate variability were measured and near-infrared spectroscopy (a noninvasive technique that monitors tissue oxygenations) of the prefrontal cortex was used. For the psychological measures, the Profile of Mood Status (POMS) was used. The results indicated that the negative emotions were markedly diminished when patients listened to the forest sound. The researchers concluded that the sound of the forest was able to relax subjects physiologically and psychologically. Also, watching and listening to birds increases the lasting effect of well-being in people with depression (White, M.E. et al. 2023.).
In conclusion, many research studies suggest that the sounds of nature can have lasting positive effects on our body and brain, so let’s use them. They are in abundance and available for free.
About the Author
Barbara Koltuska-Haskin, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist in private practice in Albuquerque, New Mexico with over 30 years of clinical experience, and the author of How My Brain Works: A Guide to Understanding It Better and Keeping It Healthy. Her book has won 2 International Book Awards and 5 National Book Awards.
Dr. Barbara Koltuska-Haskin has received her first foreign translation. How My Brain Works was recently translated into Polish and published in Poland.