During the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic, when most cities had social isolation actions, a curious phenomenon became common: the birdsong seemed to be louder – an illusion caused due to the decrease in the noise of everyday life. .
The melody is, for many, quite pleasant to hear. Not by chance: something happens in our brains while birds chirp and sing in parks and gardens. This was also the object of research of Eleanor Ratcliffea professor of environmental psychology at the University of Surrey, who looked at how bird sounds can restore attention and relieve stress.
The first of three studies consisted of an online test of 174 British residents listening to, evaluating and commenting on 50 different bird sounds from the UK and Australia.
The research found that some bird sounds offered relief from mental fatigue and stress, depending on the type of bird and what respondents associated it with.
For example, one participant found the sound of chickens comforting because it reminded her of when she was digging in the garden and her chickens would gather around, waiting for her to throw slugs to eat.
Another participant associated the sound of wood pigeons with long, hot summers during her childhood, which provoked feelings of pleasure in her.
However, some bird sounds can also have the opposite effect. For example, pigeons in cities can be perceived as a nuisance and hearing their sounds can cause a feeling of irritation.
Cultural perception also plays an important role. One participant associated owls with superstition, fear and death, but in many cultures these birds are revered and symbolize wisdom, intelligence and endurance.
Mental restoration levels also depend on the type of sound made by each bird. For example, the melody of a songbird was well received as it sounded musical and pleasant.
However, the call of a snatched bird generated stress as it was loud and shrill, which some participants associated with intentional aggression.
Other factors that affect how restorative bird song is include sound level, frequency, complexity, pattern, and familiarity.
According to the researcher, people like to hear sounds that are quieter, high-frequency or have a level of complexity, such as a melody.
“If bird sounds are loud, not melodic, harsh, plain or boring, people find them unpleasant or stressful,” Eleanor explained in an interview with the UK Natural History Museum.
The type of person who listens to them also influences the outcome. Those who enjoy nature benefited the most, while those who prefer to stay indoors or are sensitive to noise felt indifference or had a negative response.
While bird sounds can be helpful for mental health, it depends on the bird, the sound it makes, and the type of person listening to it. This means that if birdsong were to be used to help with mental health therapies, it would need to be tailored to each patient.
Why do some birdsong have a restorative effect?
According to the UK Natural History Museum, there are some theories as to why nature has a healing effect on humans. The first looks at evolution and proposes that humans have a genetically built-in preference for nature, having spent thousands of years wandering the desert before building towns and cities.
Environments that contain resources such as water, plants and animals are places where we feel better, as they indicate that we can thrive there.
Hearing birdsong signals that life is already present in an area and, depending on the type of sound emitted, implies safety.
The second theory considers how our brain processes information and focuses on certain tasks. For example, consider ignoring chatting colleagues while working in the office. The longer you do this, the more mentally tired you get.
Theory suggests that nature helps us overcome tiredness as it is an easy and often pleasant thing to focus on. It gives us a break from other cognitive challenges in the environment, allowing us to replenish the energy we’ve lost.
There is growing evidence to suggest the therapeutic power of nature. So explains an article written by Roger Ulrich, who in 1984 analyzed how the sight of nature in a hospital room could affect a patient’s rate of recovery.
As a teenager, Roger suffered from kidney disease and spent a lot of time in his room. He noted that the pine tree he could see from the window helped him get through his worst days, banishing feelings of sadness and encouraging positivity.
Later in life, he questioned “what groups of people have experienced a lot of emotional pressure and can benefit from a view of nature?”.
This formed the basis of his research, View through a window may improve recovery from surgery (“Seeing through a window can improve recovery from surgery”.)
The study found that those who could see nature needed weaker pain relief medications and fewer dosages after surgery. They also had a shorter hospital stay.
Roger’s research supported the initial theory that nature reduces stress. This has been validated by several other research projects since then and changed the way hospitals are built.
“Through my research into the restorative potential of bird sounds, I was able to show that they can create relaxing experiences similar to seeing nature or walking through nature,” Eleanor said.
Eleanor’s research is one of numerous new studies that support Roger’s findings. According to them, interaction with nature improves memory functions, reduces depressive symptoms and increases creative abilities.
There is also a decrease in feelings of isolation, making us feel more connected to the world.
Nature provokes a sense of curiosity and wonder, and promotes a perception of value to ourselves, others and the world – all of which help us to live more meaningful lives.
There is also a feeling of gratitude that arises after spending time in nature, which prompts us to protect it. With the rapid decline in biodiversity across the world, the exponential rate of pollution and climate change looming over us, this is more important than ever.