Listening to birdsong reduces anxiety

How nature's sounds can boost our mental health...
04 November 2022

Interview with 

Emil Stobbe, Max Planck Institute for Human Development


Fighting Gannets


Now we all love a walk out in the countryside, and a pivotal part of the experience is birdsong. Whether it be the soft song of a warbler, or the laughing cry of a woodpecker, birdsong is an essential part of our wildlife soundscape. But does bird song have a real tangible effect on our state of mind? Well, a new study pitted varying intensities of birdsong against varying intensities of traffic noise, to see how these sounds affected people’s level of anxiety and paranoia whilst doing practical tasks. Emil Stobbe, from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, spoke to Will Tingle about the findings…

Emil - Our experiment revealed that states of anxiety and paranoia were significantly reduced after listening to the birdsong audio, while depressive states and subjects became stronger when those subjects listened to the traffic noise audio. The effect was actually stronger when the city audio or the traffic noise audio contained various sources of traffic noises. And with respect to the anxious and paranoid states, the bird songs demonstrate to alleviate those states, but irrespective of the diversity of the birds contained there.

Will - Why do you think these noises have such an effect on our mental state?

Emil - In order to explain these effects that we found, there are several theories in debate. There's stress reduction theory, and it claims that the presence of birds signals an intact and vital environment, which is, evolutionarily speaking, a signal for very good chances of survival due to shelter or resources. And at the same time, traffic noises signal the acute presence of threats like cars running by, something that you have to pay attention to so you don't get run over. And therefore they're conveying these negative effects. Another theory, which is called Attention Restoration Theory, claims that natural stimuli such as bird songs are so-called 'softly fascinating'. And that means that they are something that we direct our attention towards voluntarily, while traffic noises are dragging our attention towards them, making them deplete our capacity much faster. And that's then resulting in the beneficial or negative effects of the city. Then we have conditioned restoration theory, which is a relatively new approach. And this is basically claiming that when we visit natural environments, we feel joy and pleasure and we often do this in our free time. And once we then encounter related stimuli such as bird songs in a different situation, such as in this experiment, then these feelings of joy and pleasure gets triggered again, like a conditioned response. And in turn they can convey these non-benefits.

Will - And now that we have this knowledge of bird song being able to reduce these negative emotions, is there a potential scope then to be using bird song, for example, in clinical settings for people who experience a lot of anxiety or paranoia?

Emil - Yeah, I definitely think so. That is the case. So bird audio can be used in a clinical setting, for example, as a background noise in order to help reduce the mental distress of patients. This can be for a clinical population, but at the same time also for a healthy population. It could be a really easy accessible way to prevent the emergence of negative mental states. And this can be by just being at home and listening to an audio recording of bird songs, but also of course at the same time visiting nature and trying to seek those audio stimuli in real life. And both would have the effect that we found in our study and could be beneficial for preventing those mental states, but also helping patients who already suffer from those to help them relieve under distress.

Will - And on a more ecological note, this study therefore surely means that we need to conserve bird populations, particularly in urban environments. Do you think bird song and traffic noise have the potential to cancel each other out?

Emil - So we think that bird songs are really special natural stimuli as they have the power to bring nature everywhere. So, the soundscape of an environment is something which is really impactful for how this environment is perceived. And due to the fact that we spend most of our time in urban environments nowadays, this opens up a really great possibility to incorporate the healing aspect of nature into our daily life. The more connected you feel to nature also enhances its beneficial effects. And sometimes there's just not the time to visit pure nature so often. So you have the option to experience birds inside the city, and this is something we should be really aiming for and trying to take this knowledge up in the design of a part of the city where parks or recreational spaces are designed.


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