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Soundscapes of national parks linked to striking health benefits

In a new study from Colorado State University and the National Park Service, experts report that natural sounds are associated with striking health benefits. The researchers found that when people are exposed to the sounds of nature in national parks, they experience decreased pain, lower stress, improved mood, and enhanced cognitive performance. 

The sound of water was found to be most effective at improving positive emotions and health outcomes, while the sounds of birds helped to combat stress and annoyance.

As part of the study, the team scrutinized sound recordings from 251 sites in 66 national parks across the United States. Dozens of CSU students identified different types of sounds in the recordings.

“In so many ways the COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the importance of nature for human health” said study lead author Rachel Buxton. “As traffic has declined during quarantine, many people have connected with soundscapes in a whole new way – noticing the relaxing sounds of birds singing just outside their window. How remarkable that these sounds are also good for our health.”

Professor Amber Pearson said the findings highlight that natural sounds may actually bolster mental health, in contrast to the harmful health effects of noise.

“Most of the existing evidence we found is from lab or hospital settings,” said Professor Pearson. “There is a clear need for more research on natural sounds in our everyday lives and how these soundscapes affect health.”

National parks have some of the most pristine soundscapes in the United States, and the National Park Service increasingly recognizes natural sounds in policy. 

The research team found that while there are some sites with abundant natural sounds, national parks that are frequently visited are more likely to be inundated with noise. This means that many park visitors are not reaping the health benefits associated with more quiet spaces.

Study co-author Kurt Fristrup is a bioacoustical scientist at the National Park Service. 

“Park sites near urban areas with higher levels of visitation represent important targets for soundscape conservation to bolster health for visitors,” said Fristrup.

“Nature-based health interventions are increasingly common in parks and incorporating explicit consideration of the acoustic environment is an opportunity to enhance health outcomes for people.”

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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