Opinions, Column

A Prescription for Sound

I am sure we are all too familiar with the major glitches that affected Spotify a week or two ago. Everyone was kicked out of their accounts, and there were plenty of comical tweets begging for Spotify to let us back in to keep listening to our coveted music. But in that brief period, if we hadn’t already caved and downloaded the disreputable alternative—Apple Music—perhaps we spent more time listening to our surroundings. 

Perhaps we spent time, more specifically, listening to our outdoor surroundings. With temperatures rising and spring approaching, surely there were some pleasant sounds of birds chirping or water flowing through a stream. Although there are certainly (and unfortunately) more snow storms and cold weather in the future for us at Boston College, the sounds of spring will eventually prevail.

And that is quite fantastic news for us. The sounds of nature that will soon emerge from their winter hiatus are immensely beneficial to our physical and mental health. Natural noises simultaneously lower stress levels and improve overall health. 

I know it seems like such a cliche that the sunshine and spring sounds will cure anything currently ailing you, but recent studies have actually measured that the biological and psychological effect that sounds of nature have on humans is overwhelmingly positive. 

In my experience, there is a precipitous difference in overall mood on campus when a warm sunny day sneaks into the typically dreary months of February or March. I know I personally feel a lot happier on these days where I can wear my light jacket and put together a real outfit, as opposed to donning a parka over my sweatshirt-sweatpants combo. 

On these days of warmer weather, I, like many others, flock to the outdoor spaces on campus and soak up as much of the sunshine as I can. I sometimes feel, maybe in a psychosomatic way, a sort of meta-consciousness, a feeling of connection to the outdoors. But this is commonplace among people who spend significant amounts of time outdoors. Sounds of nature contribute to this feeling, as they are a tangible connection between humans and nature. 

What’s great is now there is research explaining why I, and others, feel a lot better when I hear these “spring noises,” and I don’t have to convince myself that it’s just all in my head (a quite common occurrence). 

Natural sounds affect the body and brain in a contrary manner compared to anthropogenic, or human-created, noise. Sounds in nature are linked to improvements in mood, cognitive performance, as well as decreases in pain and heart rate. 

This is because natural sounds kickstart the rest-digest pathway, while anthropogenic noise triggers the fight-or-flight response. The rest-digest pathway is responsible for allowing the body to metabolize fuels and relax for sleep. Conversely, the fight-or-flight response is how our body deals with stressors and amps up attentional focus and heart rate in order to best deal with the survival situation at hand. 

When looking at brain scans of people exposed to natural and subsequent artificial noise, there was a difference in brain connectivity. In a natural sound–dominated environment, the brain’s connections focus attention outwardly on the environment and surrounding world. With artificial noise, attention was focused inwardly, akin to the connections observed in anxiety, PTSD, and depression. 

Think of two environments: a busy city block and an acre of untouched forest. In which area must you be more focused and on-guard? Which area calls for you to be on your toes, and which allows for you to breathe deeply and untense your muscles?

These answers should be lucid, and there is an acoustic reason that we are more relaxed in a forest as compared to a city block. Urban spaces call for our attention—car horns, phone calls, and the bustling noise of commuting all require us to analyze everything that is going on around us. On the contrary, the forest and other natural, outdoor areas do not call for constant attention and therefore give us space to recharge and relax. This makes sense in an evolutionary lens as well, considering that we need to be more alert in areas with noise indicative of danger. 

The reason that we respond so positively to nature sounds is because they are consistent and occur at an agreeable pitch and noise level. Our brain classifies these natural sounds as non-threatening and induces the rest-digest pathway instead of the fight-flight pathway. This is why alarms, which are abrupt and vary in noise level, are not only effective at waking us up, but also incredibly disturbing.

Now don’t get me wrong, I would not be able to get by without listening to music. Walking to class without music is frankly unbearable, especially in the cold months. I can attest to this because I have lost my AirPods multiple times and have suffered silent walks around campus, study sessions, and workouts. 

So, I am not saying that completely swearing off artificial noise is the way to go. Rather, this knowledge of the relaxing properties of the sound of nature is a great tool to have in our ever-so-stressful academic atmosphere. Maybe next time you’re stressed out, consider walking to the Res and sitting on a bench to listen to the wind in the leaves or the birds in the trees. Or even listen to one of the many podcasts or videos of “nature sounds.” Whether you actually notice a difference or not, these sounds will relax your body, maybe even to the point of sleep. And who doesn’t love a good nap?

Featured Graphic by Liz Schwab/ Heights Editor

March 20, 2022