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It’s something of a given that being in nature feels calming. But now, a new study in Scientific Reports explains — for the first time — how the sounds of the great outdoors actually relax our brains and bodies.
To look into how nature influences our physiology, researchers from Brighton and Sussex Medical School in the U.K. teamed up with audio visual artist Mark Ware. They had participants listen to both natural and artificial sounds (rolling waves and highway traffic) while monitoring their brain activity in an MRI machine. The researchers also tracked changes in participants’ heart rates, a measure of how active their autonomic nervous systems were during the experiment.
Participants’ brain connectivity showed that their attention shifted outward when natural sounds were playing but inward when they heard artificial noises. Directing your thoughts inward might sound relaxing, but as the researchers explain in the study, inward thought is associated with processes like rumination. That inward attentional state is similar to what experts see in cases of anxiety, depression and post traumatic stress disorder, the study press release notes. Shifting your attention outward, on the other hand, can help you get out of your own head so you focus less on nagging thoughts and more on what’s happening around you. Participants’ bodies were also more at ease when they heard the waves, as their nervous systems went into a more relaxed state.
“We are all familiar with the feeling of relaxation and ‘switching-off’ which comes from a walk in the countryside, and now we have evidence from the brain and the body which helps us understand this effect,” lead study author Dr. Cassandra Gould van Praag says in the press release.
Interestingly, subjects who were the most stressed before the experiment became the most relaxed once the nature sounds started playing. That suggests getting outside more often, or simply listening to nature sounds, can help us manage stress better. The findings also add to the growing evidence of what time spent in nature can do for our minds and bodies — meaning it might be time to make a quick outdoor stroll part of your regular routine.