The sounds of spring can be music to our ears, symbolizing rebirth, renewal, and new possibilities. Birds are chirping. Songbirds are singing. Rains are pattering. Cool breezes are whistling. But did you know that new research shows that listening to natural sounds can physically change our mind and bodily systems, helping us to relax?
Researchers at Brighton and Sussex Medical School found that listening to sounds of nature can positively affect the flight-or-fright and rest-digest responses in our autonomic nervous systems, as well as the associated effects on our brain activity. As a result, heart rate is lowered and breathing slowed. The study was published in Scientific Reports.
The lead author, Dr. Cassandra Gould van Praag, said, “We are all familiar with the feeling of relaxation and ‘switching-off’ which comes from a walk in the countryside, and now we have evidence from the brain and the body which helps us understand this effect.” This research is first to explore the behavioral, physiological, and brain aspects together.
How Sound Affects Your Body and Mind
Sound expert Julian Treasure has given five TED talks on the topic of sound. In his talk titled “The 4 Ways Sound Affects Us” , Treasure outlines how sound plays a more of a role in our lives than we know, in both positive and negative ways. According to Treasure:
- Sound affects us physiologically. Sounds are affecting your hormone secretions all the time,” says Treasure. “Also, your breathing, your heart rate, and your brain waves.” For instance, unpleasant sounds can increase cortisol (the stress hormone). Conversely, studies have linked listening to natural sounds, such as rippling water, to lowered levels of cortisol.
- Sound affects us psychologically. Think about how antsy you get if loud noises go on too long, or how the sound of the ocean can be calming. Listening to natural sounds relaxes us. Treasure offers bird songs as a sound people find particularly comforting and reassuring. He explains that it’s been ingrained in our psyche over hundreds of thousands of years—when birds are singing, things are safe; “It’s when they stop you need to worry!”
- Sound affects us cognitively. “We have a very small amount of bandwidth for processing auditory input,” says Treasure. This is why it’s so hard to concentrate in noisy environments. He suggests natural sounds such as a running brook or birdsong can be excellent choices for focus.
- Sound affects us behaviorally. Listening to unpleasant sounds is, well, unpleasant. Sounds of construction, traffic, and general noise affect where we choose to spend time. And if we can’t remove ourselves from unpleasant sound, it can eventually affect our health.
What If You Don’t Live in the Woods or at the Beach?
In an article from Blue and Green Tomorrow, Eva Henderson states that “listening to sounds of nature still enhances the body[‘s] ability to ‘disconnect’ and let go of its natural ways of response, relaxing the central nervous system and allowing you to truly get connected with your inner peace.” Henderson also goes on to say that “people that were exposed to nature sounds, and especially those that had high stress levels to being with, started to show a more positive attitude when being confronted with day-to-day problems and difficulties.”
When you’re looking for recorded sounds to help you relax, there are some common options people often find work well. The most popular nature sounds include:
- Ocean waves
- Humpback whales
- Rolling thunder
- Campfire at night
- Wind blowing through trees
- Bird songs
9 Relaxing Nature Sounds Online
- Sounds of Spring – Birds Singing in the Morning
- Spring Forest – Blackbird Song
- Relaxing Sea/Ocean Wave Sounds
- Campfire by the Sea – Crickets & Ocean Waves
- Rain and Thunder
- Whale and Dolphin Sounds
- Ocean Waves
- Spring Rainstorm
- Gould van Praag, C., Garfinkel, S., Sparasci, O., Mees, A., Philippides, A.O., Ware, M., Ottaviani, C., and Critchley, H.D. “Mind-wandering and alterations to default mode network connectivity when listening to naturalistic versus artificial sounds.” Scientific Reports, no. 7 (March 2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep45273.
- University of Sussex. “It’s true: The sound of nature helps us relax.” ScienceDaily. March 30, 2017. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/03/170330132354.htm.
- Treasure, Julian. “The 4 Ways Sound Affects Us.” TED Talk, October 16, 2019. YouTube video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rRepnhXq33s.
- Henderson, Eva. “4 Soothing Benefits of Listening to the Sounds of Nature.” Blue and Green Tomorrow, Aug 22, 2018. https://blueandgreentomorrow.com/environment/soothing-benefits-listening-sounds-of-nature.