Posted on Apr 11, 2017, 10 a.m.
For the first time, research shows how the sounds of nature promote relaxation and a sense of well-being.
New research from the Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS) of the University of Sussex reports that a long walk in the woods or on the beach, sitting by a burbling brook, or even the sound of wind or birds in the trees can physically change our bodily systems and mind and lead to relaxation and well-being.
'Green' environments and naturalistic sounds have frequently been linked to feelings that bring about a relaxing atmosphere; but, until this research, there was no scientific consensus as to how this comes about.
Dr. Cassandra Gould van Praag, the lead author, stated that we now have evidence from the body and the brain that helps us to understand this effect. An exciting collaboration between scientists and artists has produced results which may have a real-world impact, especially for people who experience high stress levels.
In collaboration with Mark Ware, an audio visual artist, the research team conducted their experiment. Participants listened to sounds that were recorded from artificial and natural environments. The activity in their brains was measured by an MRI scanner while their autonomic nervous system activity was monitored via heart rate minute changes. Activity in the brain's default mode network, which is a collection of areas that are active when people are resting, was different and depended on the sounds being played in the background.
Brain connectivity, when listening to artificial sounds, showed an inward-directed attention focus similar to states in anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. When the sounds being heard were natural, the brain connectivity exhibited an outward-directed attention focus. Also noted was an increase in nervous system activity, associated with relaxation, when listening to natural sounds compared to artificial ones, and there was better performance in an external attentional monitoring tasks.
The amount of change in the activity of the nervous system depended on the baseline state of the participants. Those who displayed the greatest stress before the experiment showed the largest amount of bodily relaxation when they were subjected to natural sounds. Those who were relaxed showed a slight decrease in their stress level when they listened to natural compared to artificial sounds.
This study of environmental exposure effects of the environment is of interest in mental and physical health and influences public health issues. This research is the first one to present an integrated physiological, behavioral, and brain exploration of this particular topic.
Mark Ware commented that art and science collaborations can be a problem due to a lack of shared artistic and scientific language and knowledge. However, the team at BSMS sought common ground, and that resulted in this successful and exciting outcome. He further stated that they have plans to continue the collaboration and explore how the results might be applied to the creation and understanding of time-based art such as film, multimedia performance, and installations, that will be for the benefit of people in terms of health and well-being.
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Cassandra D. Gould van Praag, Sarah N. Garfinkel, Oliver Sparasci, Alex Mees, Andrew O. Philippides, Mark Ware, Cristina Ottaviani, Hugo D. Critchley. Mind-wandering and alterations to default mode network connectivity when listening to naturalistic versus artificial sounds. Scientific Reports, 2017; 7: 45273 DOI: 10.1038/srep45273