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Science Behind Why Nature Sounds Help You Relax

Listening to nature helps us sleep better. We already know the soothing power of nature’s sounds: When we hear a mockingbird trill or a brook babble, our minds calm and our racing hearts slow down.

Nature’s music can restore us by helping us relax, and now we know why. Researchers have discovered that nature sounds change the connections in our brains, taking down the body’s fight-or-flight response. Fight or flight happens when we are under extreme stress. The nervous system prepares to fight or flee a threatening situation by releasing the hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. These stress hormones make a good night’s sleep very difficult.

Researchers at Brighton and Sussex Medical School in England have determined that nature’s sounds, in contrast to artificial noise, build up the “rest-digest” response instead.  This opposite response to “fight-or-flight” helps the body relax and fall to sleep. 

This research study, published in Scientific Reports, is noteworthy for the use of heart-rate monitors, functional magnetic resonance imaging scans (fMRI) and social experiments to determine why the body reacts so positively to natural environments. 

 Seventeen study participants listened to alternating sounds of natural and manmade environments as they performed tasks. During this time, they received brain scans and their heart rates were monitored for changes in their nervous systems.  

Image of a graphic depicting the brain with brainwaves inside of it

From studying the fMRI results, researchers noticed that when listening to artificial sounds, the brain began a pattern of inward focused attention. This kind of attention includes worrying, depression, and forms of anxiety. Additionally, reaction time while on task was slower.

By contrast, when hearing nature sounds, the brain decreased the fight-or-flight reaction and increased the rest reaction. Participants were productive at focused tasks when listening to nature.

For a restful night’s sleep, you can easily bring the sounds of, say, a rainforest or a waterfall into your bedroom.  Free nature sound apps such as Noisli or Slumber are available for download onto your smartphone. Enjoy listening to different sounds to hear what appeals to you. You may find that, like the research study participants, not only will you be able to sleep better but also more when you listen to nature’s symphony.