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The Powerful Medicine of Birdsongs and Streams

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Ah, the sounds of spring. From the songs of birds at dawn; to the trills of American toads, calling to attract mates; to the splashing of streams, swarming with tadpoles.

People have long known that the sounds of nature are soothing to the spirit. But a new study, published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, provides evidence that listening to natural sounds– especially bird calls and flowing water -- serves as a medicine for the body as well.

As it turns out, sounds of nature improve the condition of hospital patients who listen to tape recordings of them, according to the study, “A Synthesis of Health Benefits of Natural Sounds and Their Distribution in National Parks.”

Natural sounds also improve the physical and mental health of other people who enjoy them in the wild, according to Rachel Buxton, lead author of the new study and a conservation biologist at Carleton University in Ottawa. She and her colleagues examined and summarized 36 peer-reviewed scientific studies on the health benefits of natural sound.

“Natural sounds improved health outcomes by over 180 percent,” Buxton said. “So there were really dramatic improvements in health outcomes, and really striking benefits across the board. These included everything from improving our mood, to enhancing our cognitive performance, which is really important for those of us who work from home. To improving our work performance and alleviating pain, stress and annoyance.”

On the other end of the spectrum, sounds of construction – or the roar of truck traffic, airplanes, or Jet Skiis – are not just annoying, according to Rachel Buxton’s research. This unwanted noise can deal a physical blow to our health, if its loud enough.

“It’s a huge issue. Noise pollution is a big problem,” Buxton said. “It’s actually where a lot of my research has been focused, and that of my collaborative team, because it has huge implications for human health – and also for wildlife and ecosystem health.”

The building of a vast network of roads into almost every corner of the natural world over the last century, threatens not only the survival of animal species – whose habitats are fragmented – but also our own well-being.

Fortunately, Buxton’s research found that when people hear sounds of birds or water that are also mixed with some relatively low background traffic noise, most people, on the whole, still feel healthier and more relaxed. That’s because our minds tend to focus first on the natural sounds, and not the white noise of civilization.

Her conclusion: It’s better to get outside, even if you live in the noisy city.

“I always advocate for more hiking,” Buxton said, laughing. “I always think that people should get outside as much as they can. It’s really hard to tell people that right now. We are facing a global pandemic and it’s hard to get outside. It doesn’t matter if you are getting into remote pristine areas, or if you are just going to your local greenspace. A lot of us live in cities. Just go to the park around the corner or down the block. And as I mentioned, even though you might be hearing those sounds of the city in the background, by taking in those sounds, you are still getting those natural health benefits.”

The bottom line: Go out and open your ears and mind to the language of nature, no matter broken or compromised by humans. You may not understand it exactly what it’s saying. But your body will translate for you.

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The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at pelton.tom@gmail.com.

The Environment In Focus is paid for by the Abell Foundation.