Whenever Tiffany Emond is feeling stressed she will seek out the sound of ocean waves lapping the shore. Often, this happens after a long day at the kennel where the 32-year-old works near her home just outside of Montreal. Her frayed nerves are almost instantly relaxed when she hears the waves, but the sound of the water needs to be very particular.
“Not crashing waves, but just that gentle sound back and forth,” Emond says. Never mind that she is nowhere near an ocean or any other large body of water. Emond gets her sounds of the natural world online.
There is a reason we’re drawn to cottages and campgrounds at this time of year. The sunny days and blue skies, swimming and sitting by the fire all have their appeal, of course. But as researchers are discovering, simply listening to natural sounds has a profound effect on our brains and physiology, suggesting an evolutionary explanation for why these types of sounds are so essential to us. Whether it is wind blowing through trees, rainstorms, crackling fires or ocean waves, listening to these sounds can make us calmer, more reflective, better able to concentrate and even lower our stress and anxiety levels.
According to the 2016 census, 82 per cent of Canadians live in large or medium-sized cities. Cut off as we are from nature much of the time – living in condos, not around campfires – huge numbers of people are now enjoying the effects of natural sounds online.
There is a 10-hour-long recording of a thunderstorm on YouTube that has been played more than 38 million times. There are recordings of birdsong that have been played tens of millions of times, the sounds of waterfalls and campfires by rivers, as well as dozens of apps that will lull you with the sound of the sea or wind blowing through a valley.
Megan Lamers, a triathlete and graduate student at Ontario’s University of Guelph, will often listen to rainstorms or waves when she needs to relax.
“Calming sounds of nature are helpful, especially post-hard training sessions,” she says.
Some apps and websites have become so sophisticated they allow users to adjust specific sound levels, turning up the birdsong and lowering the volume of the wind, for example, while others allow you to find your perfectly soothing soundscape by layering one natural sound over another.
“We come from nature, so it’s really something we can relate to,” says Sabine Staggl, the co-creator of Noisli.com, a noise-generator website launched in 2013.
Studies of how sounds affect us physically and cognitively do seem to suggest some special affinity for noises from the natural world. A study published two years ago in the Health Environments Research and Design Journal found that people who listened to ocean waves for 15 minutes showed a decrease in pulse rate, muscle tension and self-reported stress. Meanwhile, people who listened to classical music showed no significant changes on any of these measurements.
In 2015, researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in New York State, asked people to listen to white noise, silence, normal office noise and the sound of water flowing in a mountain stream, and discovered that they reported being in better moods and better able to concentrate on a task when listening to the mountain stream.
But the most interesting study to date on the subject, one that showed just how profoundly the sounds of nature can affect brain activity and our nervous systems, was published last year in Scientific Reports.
Researchers at Brighton and Sussex Medical School in Britain used functional magnetic resonance imaging to monitor the brain activity of participants as they listened to what they call “artificial” sounds, including hair dryers, jackhammers and a ticking clock, as well as natural sounds such as waves rolling, birds singing and wind blowing in trees.
“The natural sounds helped people to enter a ‘rest and digest’ state,” lead researcher Cassandra Gould van Praag says, referring to increased activity of the parasympathetic nervous system – physiologically speaking, the opposite of “fight or flight.” Artificial sounds, meanwhile, promoted that “fight or flight” response.
More importantly, this research suggests that listening to the sound of a babbling brook for as little as five minutes might have a range of health benefits given that doing so seems to strongly promote a "rest and digest" state.
Anxiety, stress and post-traumatic stress disorder are all characterized by the type of physiological responses witnessed in test subjects who listened to artificial noises, Gould van Praag points out.
“We find that people who are in a chronic ‘fight or flight’ state become unwell physically and mentally. So we were really excited that just listening to these sounds helped reduce that fight-or-flight [state],” Gould van Praag says.
Why does listening to ocean waves or wind blowing through trees alter our minds and bodies the way they do?
“We have evolved to live in environments that have these sounds,” Gould van Praag says.
And so if you can’t get into the woods today, listening to the sounds of nature are the next best thing.
Emond will frequently listen to the sounds of a coffee shop when she is writing – one of her hobbies – and the static of pure white noise when doing chores around the house. But for calm, she turns to nature. And it’s not always water hitting a beach.
“I like listening to the sounds of a forest,” Emond says. “It gives me the energy of being there.”
Audio clips courtesy of Mark Ware/Wavelength Project