Updated: Oct 7
It has been long discussed, and studied, that there are many psychological benefits from spending time in nature. Whilst we can speculate as to which parts of nature provide the best perks (is a green space in a busy city as beneficial as a walk on a secluded beach for example), in recent years scientists have been shedding new light on visual hallmarks of nature that positively affect the human brain.
Be it trees, plants, rivers, mountains, or animals, the visual stimuli of nature has a stress reducing factor. There are studies which suggest that the presence of plants can release tension and improve cognitive function, which may explain why millennials are buying so many house plants. So if visual aesthetics can stimulate positive mental response, what about the other senses?
During lockdown myself and many friends commented how loud the birdsong had become. The chorus of fantails and tuis, sparrows and greenfinches weren’t limited to the early morning or the dimming of the light at the end of the day. Delightful discussion was had almost daily in my bubble about how bright and clear the birdsong was and how happy we were to hear it. It was even something which was looked forward to at lunch. And it’s no coincidence that we all felt this way. Scientists at the University of Surrey in the UK have come to find that the natural sounds of bird songs and calls can improve your mood, can help people recover from stress, allowing people to refocus their attention and can also stimulate your cognitive brain function.
The Science of the Sound
Researchers at Wrexham Glyndwr University in Wales suggest that birdsong has a calming effect because it is stochastic, i.e. it is made up of lots of random sounds. Unlike a song on the radio there is no pattern to focus on, no repeating rhythm, therefore it won’t get stuck in your head and you can’t predict how it will go next. Equally, it won’t bore you nor will it lull you off to sleep - there is a degree of muted excitement in the unpredictability.
In fact, a further study by the University of Exeter in England and the University of Queensland propose that regardless of a person’s age or social background, whether they lived in a busy city or small green suburb, those who saw and heard more birds during the day were less likely to feel gloomy.
What’s more, GP Dr William Bird cites studies published in Thorax medical journal which detail that patients recovering from surgery required less pain relief and were more relaxed when birdsong was played on the wards. When listening to birdsong you’re connecting in one of the simplest ways to nature. Dr Bird is even encouraging elderly and those with anxiety to listen to birdsong on a regular basis. “It’s an opportunity to feel away from the stresses and strains of everyday life.”
Birdsong Beating the Blues
Back to the University of Exeter and to Dr Daniel Cox, whose research is shedding more light on the power of birdsong. Surveying 300 people around the UK, measuring their mental health and following up by extensively documenting the concentration of birdlife around their homes, they drew a clear conclusion. “We found that people surrounded by more birds had an improved state of mental health.”
This is being used in an increasing number of interesting locations, to have such an effect. In a children's hospital in Liverpool, the chirping sounds of birds recorded at a local reserve can be heard in the corridors, calming the anxious young patients and relieving their stress. Then there is Schiphol Airport, in Amsterdam, where they are trying to relax travellers before their flights by playing bird sounds in one of their departure lounges.
Getting your fix
With life post-lockdown back to some semblance of normal, the traffic has returned and those chirping birds are back to their normal volume levels, just a little bit out of earshot, drowned out by reality of the day to day. However, with a little planning, you can easily get your fix of their song. They can be heard most clearly at the beginning and ending of the day, and almost certainly best in open or wooded spaces. That means you’ve a whole new reason to go for a local bush walk.
And, if you weren’t up early enough today to catch the dawn chorus don’t worry, the birds will be singing tomorrow and the day after that. And if you’re looking for some extra birdsong in your life, check out BBC Radio 4 online 90-second Tweet of the day. And before you ask, no, it’s got nothing to do with Twitter! Read about tips for a balanced life.