Nature sounds ‘benefit mental health and promote environmental protection’

Nature sounds such as birdsong could help people’s mental health, but this could be at risk as the environment suffers, research suggests.

The study analyzed data from more than 7,500 people collected as part of the BBC Forest 404 series, a podcast that depicted a world without nature.

People listened to a range of environments from coastal and woodland settings in the UK to a tropical rainforest in Papua New Guinea.

The researchers made changes to the sounds by varying the characteristics that could be heard.

They found that participants reported therapeutic effects when listening to landscape sounds such as waves breaking or rain falling.

Hearing wildlife in these environments — birdsong in particular — increased the sounds’ potential to relieve stress and mental fatigue, the study found.

Alex Smalley, who led the research at the University of Exeter, said: “As cities and towns have quieted down during recent lockdowns, many people have rediscovered the natural sounds around them.

“Our results suggest that shielding these experiences may benefit both mental health and conservation behavior.

“But they also provide a clear warning that when it comes to nature, memories matter.

“If we hope to harness the health benefits of nature in the future, we must ensure that everyone has the opportunity to foster positive experiences with the natural world today.”

The study also indicates that the results could be heavily influenced by people’s past experiences.

Those with sound-triggered memories found them to be more restorative, and this increased therapeutic potential was tied to their desire to protect soundscapes for future generations.

However, when there were no sounds of wildlife – suggesting a decline in environmental quality – the potential for psychological benefits declined, with people’s motivation to protect these ecosystems seeming to follow suit.

The study was a multi-agency collaboration between the BBC Natural History Unit, BBC Radio 4, University of Exeter, University of Bristol and The Open University.

It is published in the journal Global Environmental Change.

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