BRIGHTON, United Kingdom — It’s no secret a breath of fresh air can be an instant form of stress relief for people, but it turns out it might be what you hear while taking that breath that’s actually doing the calming.
A new study from Brighton and Sussex Medical School has determined how sounds of nature can help us relax ourselves.
Previous research has proven that natural sounds, be it the “gentle burbling of a brook, or the sound of the wind in the trees,” encourage our brains to submit to a more relaxed state. However, it was not clear how the sounds stimulated relaxation. In this study, researchers for the first time reveal how these effects are triggered.
“We are all familiar with the feeling of relaxation and switching-off which comes from a walk in the countryside, and now we have evidence from the brain and the body which helps us understand this effect,” says lead researcher Dr. Cassandra Gould van Praag in a school news release.
In the experiment, researchers measured the brain activity of participants with an MRI scanner as the participants listened to recorded audio from natural and artificial environments. By monitoring changes in heart rate, the researchers analyzed autonomic nervous system activity of each participant.
Brain connectivity in participants portrayed an outward-directed focus of attention when they listened the sounds of a natural environment. Interestingly, brain connectivity portrayed an “inward-directed” focus of attention when listening to sounds of an artificial environment. Such inward-directed conditions are similar to circumstances of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Participants also showed an increase in nervous system activity linked to feelings of relaxation when the natural sounds were played.
The researchers noted that the participants’ stress levels beforehand were crucial to the outcome of the experiment. Those who exhibited high levels of stress before beginning the study showed the highest levels of relaxation after listening to the natural sounds, while those who were already relaxed actually showed a slight increase in stress.
“This has been an exciting collaboration between artists and scientists, and it has produced results which may have a real-world impact, particularly for people who are experiencing high levels of stress,” says Gould van Praag.
The study was published March 30 in the journal Scientific Reports.