In sound health
Do natural sounds have a measurable effect on our mood? Eleanor Ratcliffe's Birdsong Project research is finding out.
HOW MANY PhD RESEARCH projects have prompted respected poets such as Wendy Cope to pen verses for the Times Literary Supplement? There can’t be many, but then few PhD research students have attracted quite the same level of media attention as Eleanor Ratcliffe has managed with her Birdsong Project.
“We’re exploring the effects of listening to natural sounds (including birdsong) on people’s mood and attention, particularly after stress or cognitive fatigue,” explains Eleanor. “We’re looking at how listening to natural sounds can benefit people in those situations and help them to recover.
“One of the other things I’m interested in looking at, perhaps as a secondary research question, is whether those benefits might apply to creative performance as well. So maybe if you get into a relaxed or comfortable state you might be able to produce more creative output. I think that’s something that’s going to come later on, but those are the kinds of research questions I’m trying to answer.”
As Wendy Cope suggested in her poem, these seem like questions to which we already know the answer. But it may not be as simple as it seems. “There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence about whale song, birdsong, the ocean, and so on,” admits Eleanor, “but there’s still relatively little scientific evidence. It seems that people have an instinctive feel about it, and that’s great, but when designing interventions to help people relax, or to alleviate stress and fatigue, or to help the public get into nature, you really need to make sure that what you are doing is grounded in empirical evidence.”
As Eleanor explains more about her project - which is based at the University of Surrey’s School of Psychology with funding from the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC)’s South East Doctoral Training Centre - it becomes clear that her research is about much more than just asking people if they like listening to birdsong or not. “It’s not enough to say that everyone likes birdsong,” she insists. “That’s a truism. You need to show in what situations it’s beneficial, if certain sounds are more beneficial, and for whom, and why. So it’s about addressing the questions that aren’t currently being answered.”
American musician and sound engineer turned ‘bio-acoustician’ Bernie Krause argued in his recent book The Great Animal Orchestra that each animal species will find its own acoustic niche in an ecosystem over evolutionary history. What we often write off as a pleasant cacophony will actually be a well-ordered layering of different species sounds, each one competing but also co-operating with all the others. Despite the work of people like Krause and Ratcliffe, however, it seems that the intricate soundtrack of nature is still under-researched.
“Natural sounds have been almost neglected,” agrees Eleanor. “That’s such a shame, particularly if you think about people with visual impairment. They can get a lot out of nature too, but you wouldn’t really know that from the [academic] literature because it’s so visually focused.
“There’s been so much research on how the visual natural environment can benefit people. We know a lot about how it can help people recover from stress, about how it can help with concentration and performance. And although there’s relatively little research in the area, there are also some steps toward showing that it can help with creative performance too. So I think if we can also get a better understanding of how and why the auditory side of nature is beneficial, it would expand our understanding in a greater sense of what nature has to offer for us. And that can only be good for people.
“One of the things I’m interested in doing with my project partners at the National Trust and the Surrey Wildlife Trust is running field studies to get people listening to pre-selected natural sounds while also experiencing nature visually. In that way we can control whether they’re listening and seeing, listening but not seeing, seeing but not listening, or neither. Then we can observe the differences in reactions and see whether experiencing nature is better in sight and sound.”
Down to business
At the time of writing, the Birdsong Project is still at a relatively early stage. The flurry of initial publicity brought several radio appearances and newspaper articles, but now Eleanor has to quietly take the project through the usual steps of academic research. Test subjects are rating and sorting short soundclips so that different kinds of sounds and types of birdsong can be measured objectively, which will help Eleanor to understand how she might use factors such as the range of pitch or the complexity in a bird’s song to predict its restorative or relaxation potential. Once she has identified the sounds that provoke the strongest reactions she’ll be able to expose people to them in controlled lab settings and measure changes in heart rate, skin conductance and even brain activity.
“It’s really come together well,” says Eleanor, with a little understatement. “It’s great to be collaborating with other academic disciplines, to have input from industry, and to see a way of getting our results out there. If our results show that experiencing natural sounds has a particular sort of effect, people can then latch on to that and say ‘nature can be good for me in this way’. Hopefully that will make people more open to and positive about nature.”