Natural sounds such as birdsong can improve your mental health

Listening to birdsong significantly reduces anxiety and paranoia, according a new German study.

 The Hoopoe bird (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Hoopoe bird
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Don’t just watch the birdie – listen to it. Hearing birdsong can not only improve people’s moods but also minimize paranoia, according to researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany. 

In the study led by author Emil Stobbe, a doctoral fellow at the Lise Meitner Group for Environmental Neuroscience that studies the effects of the physical environment on the individual, the researchers examined how traffic noise and birdsong affect mood, paranoia and cognitive functioning by carrying out a randomized online experiment with 295 participants.

The participants heard six minutes of either typical traffic noise or birdsong with varying numbers of different traffic sounds or birdsongs. Before and after hearing the sound clips, they filled in questionnaires assessing their mental health and performed cognitive tests. 

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports under the title “Birdsongs alleviate anxiety and paranoia in healthy participants.”

Mental health [illustrative] (credit: PIXABAY)Mental health [illustrative] (credit: PIXABAY)

“Everyone has certain psychological dispositions. Healthy people can also experience anxious thoughts or temporary paranoid perceptions,” said Stobbe. “The questionnaires enable us to identify people’s tendencies without their having a diagnosis of depression, anxiety and paranoia and to investigate the effect of the sounds of birds or traffic on these tendencies.”

The impact of environmental influences on psychological well-being and cognition in humans have for a long time been neglected in traditional psychology, the team wrote.

“At present, human living environments are changing drastically. According to the UN, 2007 was a turning point for humankind as for the first time the majority of the global population lived in urban areas. By 2050, it is estimated that 68% of the world's population will be living in cities. In Europe, the urbanization rate is already as high as 75%.

"Urbanization coincides with increasing rates of mental illness," they added. An earlier review from 2005 came to the conclusion that about 30% of the incidence in schizophrenia may be attributed to urban factors in interaction with genetic liability and social adversity.”

The new German study suggested that listening to birdsong significantly reduces anxiety and paranoia in healthy participants. Birdsong did not appear, however, to have an influence on depressive states. Traffic noise, however, generally worsened depressive states, especially if the audio clip involved many different kinds of traffic sounds. The positive influence of birdsong on mood is already known, but to the best of the authors’ knowledge, this study is the first to reveal an effect on paranoid states. This was independent of whether the birdsong came from two or more different bird species.

The researchers also found that neither birdsong nor traffic noise influenced cognitive performance.

The team offered an explanation for this phenomenon – birdsong is a “subtle indication of an intact natural environment, detracting attention from stressors that could otherwise signal an acute threat, they wrote.  “Taken together, the results suggest interesting avenues for further research and applications such as the active manipulation of background noise in different situations or the examination of its influence on patients with diagnosed anxiety disorders or paranoia.

Can birdsong be used to prevent mental disorders?

Birdsong could also be applied to prevent mental disorders, they continued. 

Listening to an audio CD would be a simple, easily accessible intervention. “But if we could already show such effects in an online experiment performed by participants on a computer, we can assume that these are even stronger outdoors in nature,” said Stobbe. 

We were recently able to perform a study showing that a one-hour walk in nature reduces brain activity associated with stress,” added the research group’s head Simone Kühn. “We cannot say yet which features of nature – smells, sounds, color or a combination thereof – are responsible for the effect. The present study provides a further building block to clarify this issue,” continued Kühn.

“What is clear is that nature improves mental health and well-being. So let’s go for a walk in green surroundings.”