It’s normal to feel overwhelmed as many of us try to remain indoors to help stop the spread of COVID-19. A coping mechanism we normally have at our disposal — taking a quick stroll in nature — also seems to be in short supply, as more and more parks and green spaces begin to close temporarily to further encourage social distancing.
Fortunately, research shows that being physically in nature is not needed to optimise our functioning as humans; simply hearing it will help us cope.
After analyzing the results, the researchers concluded that there was a difference in how the brain reacted to stress when listening to artificial or natural sound. When listening to natural sounds, the brain connectivity suggested that there was an outward focus of attention, whereas when listening to artificial sounds, the brain connectivity suggested that there was an inward focus of attention.
According to researchers in a recent study, sounds in nature help ease the functioning of our fight or flight response, which is the normal physiological reaction humans have in times of stress, in which our body ultimately must prepare to fight or flee a physical or psychological stressor (including, in modern times, writing a test or making a presentation at work).
Participants in the study, which was carried out in collaboration with Mark Ware, an audiovisual artist who captured sounds in natural versus artificial settings, listened to either artificial or natural sounds while lying in an MRI machine. When their brains were being searched for clues in
An inward focus of attention is otherwise found when we’re in a state of anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. Beyond the brain, there were also other factors at play: “There was also an increase in rest-digest nervous system activity (associated with relaxation of the body) when listening to natural compared with artificial sounds, and better performance in an external attentional monitoring task.” Participants who benefited the most from listening to natural sounds were those who were particularly stressed to begin with, while interestingly enough, participants who were quite relaxed actually found an increased heart rate when listening to natural sounds.
Not only do sounds of nature help ease our stressed bodies and minds, but specific sounds of nature can help with our sleep quality, too.
According to Orfeu M. Buxton, a neuroscientist and faculty member at the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, the types of sounds in natural environments, such as ocean waves crashing or a thunderstorm are “slow, whooshing noises” that are “the sounds of non-threats, which is why they work to calm people.” Because of the repetitious, non-abrupt character of natural noise, which helps muddle alerting sounds, like a scream or siren, and soften the effect so as to mediate the threat detection system in our minds which would otherwise serve to wake us up, listening to the outdoors in slumber can help produce better sleep.
So, if you’re feeling stressed inside, consider listening to the millions of “nature sound” videos available for free on YouTube — they may just help you relax and sleep peacefully.