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Listening to birdsongs can improve mental health

Through a randomized online experiment with 295 participants, a team of scientists led by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development has investigated how traffic noise and birdsong affect mood, paranoia, and cognitive functioning. The analysis revealed that listening to birdsong reduces anxiety and paranoia, thus contributing to mental health.

The participants listened to six minutes of either typical traffic noise or birdsongs. Before and after hearing these clips, the participants had to fill in questionnaires assessing their mental health and to perform a series of cognitive tests.

“Everyone has certain psychological dispositions. Healthy people can also experience anxious thoughts or temporary paranoid perceptions,” explained study lead author Emil Stobbe, a postdoctoral fellow in Environmental Neuroscience at Max Planck.

“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.” 

While birdsong appeared to reduce anxiety and paranoia in healthy participants, it did not seem to have an influence on depressive states. By contrast, listening to traffic noise worsened such states, particularly if the audio clip involved many different types of traffic sounds. While the positive effect of birdsong on mood was already well-known, this study is the first to reveal a positive effect on paranoid states. However, neither birdsong nor traffic noise influenced cognitive performance.

According to the researchers, birdsong could be a subtle indication of an intact natural environment, detracting the listeners’ attention from environmental stressors which could otherwise signal an acute and imminent threat. These findings suggest the possibility of applications in the treatment of mental illness, such as the active manipulation of background noise in various situations or the examination of its influences on people suffering from anxiety disorders or paranoia.

„Birdsong could also be applied to prevent mental disorders. 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,” Dr. Stobbe said.

“We were recently able to perform a study showing that a one-hour walk in nature reduces brain activity associated with stress,” added senior author Simone Kühn, a professor of Environmental Neuroscience at Max Planck. “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,” she concluded. 

The study is published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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