Sounds of nature ‘benefit mental health and promote environmental protection’

People reported therapeutic effects from listening to landscape sounds such as breaking waves or falling rain.

23 March 2022

Sounds of nature such as birdsong could help people’s mental health, but this could be under threat as the environment suffers, research suggests.

The study analysed data from more than 7,500 people collected as part of BBC series Forest 404, 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.

Researchers made changes to the sounds by varying the features that could be heard.

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

Hearing wildlife in these environments – birdsong in particular – increased the potential of the sounds to provide relief from stress and mental fatigue, the study found.

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

“Our findings suggest that protecting these experiences could be beneficial for both mental health and conservation behaviour.

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

“If we hope to harness nature’s health benefits in the future, we need to ensure everyone has opportunities to foster positive experiences with the natural world today.”

The study also indicates the outcomes could be strongly influenced by people’s past experiences.

Those who had memories triggered by the sounds found them more restorative, and this increase in therapeutic potential was linked to their desire to protect the soundscapes for future generations.

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

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

It is published in the journal Global Environmental Change.

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