A recently published study from Carleton University’s Rachel Buxton, research scientist in the Department of Biology, and researchers from Michigan State University, Colorado State University and the National Park Service analyzed studies on the outcomes of listening to natural sounds and found striking human health benefits.

Wolves howling, birds singing, rain falling—natural sounds inspire people and connect them to nature and this new research shows these sounds are also good for our health.

The team found people who experienced the sounds of nature felt decreased pain, lower stress, improved mood and enhanced cognitive performance. The sounds of water were most effective at improving positive emotions and health outcomes, while bird sounds combat stress and annoyance.

“In so many ways the COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the importance of nature for human health” said Buxton. “As traffic has declined during quarantine, many people have connected with soundscapes in a whole new way—noticing the relaxing sounds of birds singing just outside their window. How remarkable that these sounds are also good for our health.”

The study, A synthesis of health benefits of natural sounds and their distribution in national parks, was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The team scrutinized sound recordings from 251 sites in 66 national parks across the United States as part of the study. Dozens of students at Colorado State University (CSU) identified different types of sounds in recordings, the result of over a decade of collaboration between CSU and the National Park Service.

Amber Pearson, one of the lead authors and associate professor at Michigan State University, said the findings highlight that, in contrast to the harmful health effects of noise, natural sounds may actually bolster mental health. “Most of the existing evidence we found is from lab or hospital settings,” she said. “There is a clear need for more research on natural sounds in our everyday lives and how these soundscapes affect health.”

National parks have some of the most pristine soundscapes in the United States, and the National Park Service increasingly recognizes natural sounds in policy. Although the research team found that health-bolstering sites in parks—those with abundant natural sounds and little interference from noise—do exist, parks that are heavily visited are more likely to be inundated with noise. That means many park visitors are not reaping the health benefits found in quieter spaces.

“Park sites near urban areas with higher levels of visitation represent important targets for soundscape conservation to bolster health for visitors” said Kurt Fristrup, a co-author on the study and bioacoustical scientist at the National Park Service. “Nature-based health interventions are increasingly common in parks and incorporating explicit consideration of the acoustic environment is an opportunity to enhance health outcomes for people.”

Many innovative programs exist to increase people’s appreciation of acoustic environments, from soundwalks and excursions where the main purpose is listening, to quiet zones, where soundscapes are enhanced by asking visitors to appreciate a park quietly. Paired with noise management, these methods allow visitors more exposure to natural sounds and their health benefits.

“Our results contribute to the growing conversation about the conservation and accessibility of parks and other outdoors environments” said Claudia Allou, a co-author on the study and recent graduate of Michigan State University.

George Wittemyer, co-author on the study and a professor at CSU, said the research highlights an under-recognized benefit nature and its conservation bestow upon the public.

“The positive health impacts and stress reduction benefits of nature are more salient than ever to help offset the concerning increase in anxiety and mental health issues,” he said.

Buxton suggests people close their eyes, and be mindful of the sounds they hear when visiting a favorite park. “These sounds are beautiful and good for our health – they deserve our protection,” she added.

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Carleton University

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Monday, March 22, 2021 in
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