A chorus line of low rumbles parade past our home every day, as on-site workers head out or return from their jobs. Construction workers hammer away building new apartments. Children homeschooling and parents working remotely buzz about, unaware of the decibels they resonate. Our urban ecosystems play host to a cacophony of man-made noises, some have even increased because of confinement during quarantine. The number and proximity of people sheltering-in-place, has increased the volume of noise pollution in built-up areas, drowning out the fragile sounds of nature.

Noise pollution may seem a trival concern amidst the pandemic but the consequences of constant exposure to unnatural sounds has been shown to have measurale ill-effects on our health. By contrast, studies indicate nature’s soundtrack to have multifaceted benefits for our physical and emotional well-being.

In the book Biophilia, designer and best-selling author, Sally Coulthard, demonstrates how to transform your living and working spaces into places that put you in touch with nature. The illustrated guide covers key elements for the ‘biophilic home’, including sounds, materials, views, colour and natural light. Each section explores the links between home, health and happiness, drawing on environmental research and neuroscience while making practical suggestions for bringing the natural world into your home.

Photo © martin-dm / iStock

Sally joined BEJournal, to explain more about the science behind nature’s theraputic effects and to offer some ‘sound’ advise for improving the ‘acoustic ecology’ of urban settings…

It’s official. Listening to natural sounds actually has a positive physiological effect.  Researchers at Brighton and Sussex Medical School in England recently found that natural soundscapes calm our fight-or-flight response and help brain activity to switch into rest mode.  Other studies suggest nature’s symphony can help with chronic pain, poor sleep, concentration and reduce stress.  The question is which sounds work best?  

I’m a firm believer in the idea that everyone is different and, just as we like different foods, we have different sound preferences.  For me, the most relaxing sound is the early morning bird chorus. It makes me feel both relaxed and uplifted. For my husband, the sound of waves crashing triggers happy memories of his childhood. And, for my eldest teenage daughter, the shush of heavy rainfall is the perfect antidote to sleeplessness. 

I understand why she likes that sound—I can remember falling asleep to the sound of rain as a child, on holiday in a tent; it’s the white noise of the countryside. Sound is a profoundly personal experience, linked not only to our experience of nature but also our upbringing and cultural associations. Wildlife noises, for example, vary wildly from continent to continent—I think we find most peace when we listen to those that are familiar to our own environment. Other sounds are universally appealing—the crackle of a campfire, the babble of a brook, leaves gently rustling. We have to find our own ‘acoustic ecology’.

There’s no substitute for getting out into nature and hearing her sounds first hand.  But when that’s not possible, there are dozens of fantastic apps which can help—Naturespace, for example, specialises in pure, immersive nature sounds, designed to be listened to using headphones, while Noisli allows you to mix a variety of natural sounds to create your own background noise for workspaces or home. Other apps, such as Headspace, combine meditation or breathing exercises with background natural sounds. 

There’s no right or wrong sound—in my experience, it’s deeply individual.

I’d say that, of sounds that really calm me when I’m feeling stressed out, these five always hit the right note. These are all around me, on our farm, and so getting outside is always the perfect antidote.

  • Buzzing bees: we have two hives here on the farm and nothing beats listening to their contented, busy hum.
  • An open fire: cracking flames, the gentle hissing and spitting of wood burning, is an instant way to unwind at the end of the day.
  • Gentle rain: not a deluge, but listening to a light summer rain storm can be really invigorating but also soothing.
  • Waves gently lapping onto shingle: that’s the sound of our local shoreline and reminds me of brisk beach walks on blustery northern days.
  • Crickets: this is definitely the sound of high summer, the crops just coming into harvest and a sense of everything coming to fruition.

Sally Coulthard’s new book, Biophilia: A Handbook for Bringing the Natural World into your Life was released in March, 2020.

To see more of her work visit: http://www.sallycoulthard.co.uk

Explorer and media producer, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide resources and opportunities for creative exploration.