Starting with sound

Can the sounds of nature deliver therapeutic benefits? We’re beginning Virtual Nature with this often neglected component of the natural environment.

Our daily lives are surrounded by sounds; as the din of traffic accompanies us home, the dog in the park begins her next stanza of barking. For those still at work, the office printer resumes its insidious whirr.

Often referred to as ‘noise’, the soundtrack of modern life is commonly perceived as a something to escape from. But without the gift of ‘ear lids’, what do we escape to? In many cases, the ‘quiet’ spaces we retreat to are anything but silent.

A now established body of research has demonstrated that spending time in natural environments can have positive effects on people’s wellbeing. Physically spending time in nature – as well as simply viewing scenes of the natural world – can lower stress and help to restore psychological health.

Research in this area has largely focused on the visual sense, often assessing responses to the way an environment looks. Now, a growing number of studies have begun to suggest a similar relationship might exist when simply listening to the sounds of the natural world (Dr Sarah Payne and Dr Eleanor Ratcliffe have looked at this in the UK for example).

This sense is particularly important for those living with visual impairments, something Dr Sarah Bell has looked at in her amazing Sensing Nature study. These findings all suggest that listening to the sounds of nature will be vital in creating restorative experiences in virtual reality.

They also offer the tantalising prospect that immersion in a natural soundscape could be enough to deliver therapeutic gains, opening the door for a new kind of intervention which uses sound alone.

Whilst we know that subjective views will be important, and that culture will also play a role in this relationship, research in this area is still in its infancy, and we don’t yet understand how people from a range of backgrounds respond to the many sounds found in the natural world.

We want to shed light on these effects and boost our understanding of how listening to the rich soundscapes of nature can impact wellbeing. To do this, we’re going to start with a national survey that asks people across the UK how they feel about different types of soundscape.

Work on this survey is about to begin and we’ll update as soon as we have more details.

Alex Smalley