If You Can’t Get into Nature, Bring Nature to You

We'd all love to be in a serene forest, but just using natural soundscapes to cover up urban noise has some real mental and physical benefits.


Noises can be distracting. Loud construction sounds, crying babies, or noisy neighbours and co-workers can make it hard to focus. Many people may turn to a favourite playlist to help tune it all out. According to a new study from Carleton University, covering up annoying background noises with nature soundscapes might be a great choice to improve our health at the same time.

The study was led by Rachel Buxton, a research scientist in Carleton University’s Department of Biology, and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Nature sounds can be relaxing, but what effect do they have on our physical and mental health? To investigate this, Buxton and her colleagues started by carrying out a comprehensive literature review of previous studies on this topic.

By combining previous results, the team found an overall improvement of 184% for health outcomes of study participants who were exposed to nature sounds. This included both physical health outcomes (for example, lowering blood pressure levels or reducing participants’ perception of chronic pain) as well as outcomes related to the study participants’ moods, stress levels, and overall cognition.

Water sounds resulted in the largest health benefits overall, but bird sounds were shown to be most effective at reducing participants’ stress and annoyance levels.

The authors noted that the majority of these studies occurred in a laboratory or hospital setting rather than a natural environment. This is good news for anyone listening to nature playlists at home, but the authors stress that future work should investigate the benefits of listening while in a natural environment as well.

While the results showed clear benefits associated with nature soundscapes, Buxton and her colleagues also described how anthropogenic noises — which originate from human activity — can actually diminish these positive health outcomes. This may be problematic for park-goers who can’t travel far from noisy cities, but still want to reap the health benefits of natural soundscapes while exploring a park.

The team went on to investigate how many parks really do provide access to purely natural soundscapes, and how many are contaminated by anthropogenic noise. They did this by analyzing recordings from 221 sites in 68 parks across the United States.

Overall, the team found that nature sounds were highly audible (in other words, could be heard more than 75% of the time) at the majority of parks. Yet only 11.3% of parks were found to have a low level of anthropogenic sounds as well as a high level of nature sounds — and at these noisier parks, the health benefits that come with nature soundscapes are reduced.

While national park conservation efforts across the US and Canada are becoming more widespread, very few of these focus on soundscape conservation as well. The authors suggest that national parks implement measures designed to either reduce anthropogenic noise or enhance natural soundscapes — for example, designating specific quiet zones throughout the park. Measures like these will enhance the experience and health benefits for anyone who isn’t able to travel to remote, noise-free locations.

“In so many ways the COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the importance of nature for human health,” Buxton said in a press release.

“These sounds are beautiful and good for our health — they deserve our protection.”

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.