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Can’t hear yourself think? It’s time to get back to nature

Nov 29, 2019
The sounds we encounter each and every day have a profound effect on our physical and mental wellbeing, one that’s often greatly underestimated.

Our hearing is the one sense we can never switch off – we’re always listening, and our subconscious is constantly processing what’s happening in the world around us. Traffic noise, the chatter of an open plan office, the radio-friendly soundtrack that’s piped into a supermarket – in the bustling, modern world, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to escape the constant barrage of ambient noise. According to Paul Madaule, a therapist who founded The Listening Centre in Toronto more than 40 years ago, the result can leave people feeling physically and mentally wiped out. In order to combat this worrying trend, people are beginning to seek connections with nature. Architects and designers have turned to biophilic design – a sustainable design strategy that brings organic elements into buildings, such as wooden furniture and maximising the use of sunlight – and similarly, natural sounds are becoming a calming backdrop for both work and relaxation.
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As part of a recent study, researchers have pinpointed a scientific explanation for why sounds from nature have such a positive effect on our psyche – by physically altering the connections in our brains, they reduce our fight-or-flight instinct. Cassandra Gould van Praag, PhD, a research fellow at the University of Sussex, says the study’s findings may have a significant real-world impact, especially for those struggling with high stress levels. “I would definitely recommend a walk in natural surroundings to anyone, whether they're currently feeling frazzled or not. Even a few minutes of escape could be beneficial.”

Although many of us would love the opportunity to head out for a stroll in the great outdoors during our lunchbreak, there are often a number of practical obstacles which prevent this from being a feasible reality. And so we turn to technology to bridge the gap between ourselves and nature in the pursuit of wellness and good mental health. Meditation apps like Headspace and Calm allow the user to access an array of restorative soundscapes from their smartphones – and today, both are valued at approximately $250m, boasting 12 and 8 million users respectively.
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The Mindfulness industry as a whole has seen unstoppable growth in recent years, and is currently worth a staggering $4 billion. However, the idea of relaxing to a soothing sonic backdrop isn’t a new concept. In fact, Hermann von Helmholtz, a German physician and physicist, wrote as far back as the 1860s that reproducing the sounds of the wind and the sea could benefit human psychological health – and he was right. Research, including several studies done at the University of Surrey, made connections between exposure to the sounds of wind, water and particularly birdsong to decreased stress. As nature’s alarm clock, birds are proven to make most people feel secure – when they’re happily tweeting, things are normally quite safe.

Such is the positive power of these pleasant chirps, warbles and whistles, that on the 17th of October, commuters and shoppers at over 5,000 locations across the UK were treated to the uninterrupted sound of birdsong, as part of the RSPB’s campaign to highlight the plight of birds throughout the UK, and scoring a surprise top 20 hit with a track of birdsong in the process. Rebecca Munro, the RSPB's director of communications, said:

"Let Nature Sing got the public talking about what birdsong means to them and the shocking fact that the UK has lost over 40 million birds in just half a century. We all need birdsong in our daily life, but our natural world is in crisis, our wildlife is falling silent."

And if science has taught us anything so far, it’s that the sounds of our wildlife is something to be treasured and cherished, for the good of our mental health if nothing else.

However, it isn’t just the sounds of nature that’ve been known to bring us moments of calm and reflection. Music has also long been known for its therapeutic properties, with a new study finding that listening to music can provide a boost to mental wellbeing, with those taking part in the survey overwhelmingly agreeing that listening to their favourite records was a source of comfort. When asked if listening to albums helped them relax, 82.9% agreed, while 76.4% responded positively when asked if listening to albums made them feel better if they were feeling down. Chief executive of the BPI (representative body for UK record labels), Geoff Taylor agrees it’s a great way to unwind, adding “Its benefits can go much deeper when the listener really takes the time to slow down and immerse themselves in the whole album as the songwriter intended. Fans can engage with what the artist is saying to them, and, as the survey suggests, it’s this point of empathy and the emotional connection it enables, that can help to encourage mindfulness and wellbeing.”

Though there may be no simple fix when it comes to maintaining our mental health and wellbeing, taking time out to immerse ourselves in nature (either first hand or via an app), or indeed rediscovering a favourite album is certainly an extremely positive starting point. So next time you hear the birds singing in your neighbourhood, perhaps stop for a second and just… listen.