Have you ever found yourself in a meditative state, listening to the calming sounds of nature, only to have an aircraft pass by overhead? It can be an instant stresser. Man-made noises like this can interfere with your overall experience out in nature and cause hyperarousal, impacting your behavior, physiology, and fitness. Additionally, jarring noises can lead to high blood pressure and other ailments. These negative effects are also true for animals—their ability to communicate, survey their environment, and find food and mates is impacted. A growing number of studies explore noise’s negative effects on animals and humans alike, but could the same be true for the opposite? Could natural sounds actually have a positive impact?
A group of researchers from Michigan State University, Carleton University, and Colorado State University partnered with the National Park Service to analyze 18 studies on how natural sounds can impact human health. Their results, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that listening to existing noises in nature has incredibly positive effects, including a decrease in stress and pain, an improvement in cognitive performance, an enhancement in mood, and much more. The research even goes into further detail outlining which particular sounds might bring about specific benefits.
Why we have such a positive response to certain natural sounds isn’t completely clear, but researchers have their theories. To explore the possible health benefits of natural sounds, the team studied more than 10 years' worth of studies conducted around the world. Researchers found that activity in the brain’s default mode network differed in listening to natural sounds versus man-made sounds. Natural sounds resulted in outward focus of attention, whereas man-made sounds evoked an inward focus of attention—a pattern linked to stress.
Buxton, a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, conducted a statistical analysiswith her team that synthesized results and found that bird sounds helped alleviate stress and annoyance. And water sounds enhanced positive emotions like tranquility, awareness, and relaxation. Buxton’s team encourages people to find inspiration in the Japanese practice of “forest bathing” by visiting a national park or participating in innovative programs, such as sound walks, designed to increase our appreciation of natural sounds that already exist. The Cathedral Grove in Muir Woods, California is designed as a serene place where visitors can appreciate nature quietly. So you can leave the Bluetooth speaker at home and let natural life provide the playlist.
But what if there is no escaping unwanted noise such as traffic? There’s good news as research suggests people can still benefit from natural sounds mixed with man-made noises. There’s evidence that natural sounds help mask the negative impacts of unwanted noise, such as cars, trains, and planes. Listening to natural sounds along with man-made noise has better outcomes for your well being than listening to the unnatural noises on their own. That ocean sounds playlist you listen to every night to drown out the street noise might be doing wonders for your overall health—more than you may even realize!
The benefits of nature sounds to physical and mental health are well-recorded. Studies have linked experiences in nature to have a positive impact on well-being with a measurable decrease in mental stress, an improvement in cognitive performance, and high levels of creativity, as well as improved sleep.
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