We’re no strangers to the beneficial effects of, and have long been passionate advocates of, nature as therapy. However, recent research has shown that the benefits of nature on our mental health aren’t just limited to visual immersion in green and blue spaces — with simply hearing birds (and their songs) working to improve our mental wellbeing.
Birds are omnipresent in natural settings; even when heard in an urban environment, our minds instinctively connect them to nature.
A study undertaken last year by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development investigated how birdsongs impacted mood, cognitive function, and paranoia. The study saw 295 clinically mentally healthy participants listen to six minutes of either traffic noise or birdsongs (both of low or high diversity) and self-assess their emotional states and take a cognitive memory test both before and after the listening exercise.
“Everyone has certain psychological dispositions,” Emil Stobbe, lead author of the study and cognitive neuroscientist, explained in a statement. “Healthy people can also experience anxious thoughts or temporary paranoid perceptions. The questionnaires enable us to identify people’s tendencies without them having a diagnosis of depression, anxiety, and paranoia and to investigate the effect of the sounds of birds or traffic on these tendencies.”
Those who listened to more diverse birdsongs (comprising eight species) reported a decrease in depressive symptoms and feelings of anxiety and paranoia, with those who listened to less diverse birdsongs (two species) also experiencing a significant reduction in anxiety and paranoia. In contrast, those who were assigned varied traffic noises experienced an increase in depressive symptoms.
Best of all? The study was undertaken using headphones, showing that the auditory component alone was enough to make a marked effect on participants’ overall mental wellbeing — though it can be hypothesised that this would increase with exposure to green and blue spaces.
A complementary study, also undertaken last year, led by academics from King’s College London, found that everyday encounters with birds boosted the moods of both those with depression as well as the wider population. The study saw almost 1300 participants track their encounters with the external environment. Though they were not told that the researchers were specifically looking at birds, data analysis of the 26,856 assessments collected found a significant positive association between seeing or hearing birds and improved mental wellbeing.
Researchers found that participants' mental wellbeing scores increased when they saw or heard birds, with the effects lasting beyond the actual bird encounters.
“We need to create and support environments, particularly urban environments, where bird life is a constant feature,” said Andrea Mechelli, study co-author and professor of early intervention in mental health at King’s College London.
“To have a healthy population of birds, you also need plants; you also need trees. We need to nurture the whole ecosystem within our cities.”
At one point, birdsongs would have been a constant presence in the day-to-day lives of humans. It’s possible that some part of our mind realises this and connects to birdsongs subconsciously. The researchers of the first study hypothesise that birdsong signals an intact natural environment, drawing our minds away from stress and thereby reducing anxiety.
Ready to tap into the benefits of birdsong? Take a walk around your local park or if you are stuck in the office you can pop in your headphones and listen here; to enhance the therapeutic effect!