You know the feeling that washes over you as you listen to the chorus of crickets or the sound of water babbling down a stream? According to a study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, the calming feeling has something to do with how nature affects our modern instinct to live in “fight or flight” mode.
The idea that listening to or being around nature producing feelings of relaxation is nothing new. However, recent research is the first to use heart-rate monitors, brain scans, and behavioral experiments to determine why listening to nature produces positive physiological effects. For the study, researchers at Brighton and Sussex Medical School in England recruited 17 healthy adults to receive functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans. Meanwhile, a series of five-minute soundscapes of both manmade and natural environments were played in the background.
Health reports that during each soundscape, participants performed a task which measured their attention and reaction time. Their heart rates were monitored to determine whether or not their autonomic nervous systems were affected.
While reviewing the fMRI results, the researchers noticed that activity in the brain’s default mode network (the area in which mind wandering and “task-free” states of wakefulness occur) varied depending on the music being played. Listening to artificial sounds was associated with patterns of inward-focused attention. Nature sounds, on the other hand, produced more external-focused attention.
The artificial music caused participants to worry and ruminate about situations beyond their control. This pattern is linked to conditions involving psychological stress, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD. In this state, the participants’ reactions times were slower compared to listening to natural sounds. Based on the data, the researchers concluded that nature sounds help to decrease the body’s sympathetic response (linked with “fight-or-flight” mode) and increase the parasympathetic response (linked with relaxation and feelings of well-being).
Said lead author Cassandra Gould van Praag, PhD, a research fellow at the University of Sussex: “I would definitely recommend a walk in natural surroundings to anyone, whether they’re currently feeling frazzled or not. Even a few minutes of escape could be beneficial.” Goud admits that the research has inspired her to get outdoors more. “I really did find the downloaded tracks helpful for those times when I couldn’t get away from my desk,” she said.
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