Study examines the effect of nature sounds on cognitive performance

A question I’m asked a lot is: “does listening to nature sounds improve mental performance?”

I’ve been planning an informal literature review examining the evidence for and against the potential for natural ambient sounds to help people concentrate, recall information and think clearly. That project is still ongoing.

In the meantime, however, I came across a 2018 study that I think is interesting enough in its own right to merit some discussion.

The study (full text available free of charge) took 63 participants and measured their performance on two standardized tests of working memory. Then, each participant listened to either “urban” sounds or “nature” sounds. Each particpant then took a second round of the working memory tests, and scores were compared between the two groups.

The results are interesting.

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Noise pollution at a human level

My last post was a brief look at some academic data on the harms of noise pollution. Since writing it, I’ve been thinking more about what noise pollution looks like in my community.

I’m writing this in June of 2020, as Illinois’ coronavirus stay-at-home restrictions are beginning to ease a little, but life is still very far from “normal”. For the past few months, much of the world has spent more time confined in their living spaces than they would otherwise choose to.

I am very lucky. I have enough room in my apartment, access to some outdoor space, and good neighbours. But writing my last post set me thinking about what the term “good neighbours” actually means to me.

I realized, somewhat to my surprise, that to me “good neighbours” means almost exactly “quiet neighbours”. I have always lived in cities, and with a couple of exceptions I have always fallen into the modern trope of having little to no relationship with my neighbours beyond cursing them under my breath if they play loud music at 4am. Those times I have had “good neighbours”, they have been good because they were quiet, and their quietness allowed me to ignore them, forget about them, and pretend they didn’t exist.

On one level that feels sad - that what I most value in my neighbours is their absence rather than their presence - but it also reflects the realities of city living, where most people live closer to others than they would otherwise choose to.

It also reflects just how intrusive noise from neighbors can be. Consider the senses:

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The real cost of noise pollution

To most people, noise pollution is considered little more than an annoyance. Perhaps your neighbor plays their stereo too loud, or starts using their leaf blower at 5am - it’s irritating, perhaps you lose a little sleep, but that feels like the end of it.

But increasingly, scientific research shows that noise pollution can have real, serious, measurable negative effects on the health and wellbeing of the public.

Real harm

A 2019 review found that noise pollution:

interferes with communication, disturbs daily activities, and disrupts sleep, leading to mental stress

and that

Upon chronic exposure, stress responses […] lead to autonomic imbalance, oxidative stress, inflammation, and endothelial dysfunction, which then accelerates the development of cerebrocardiovascular risk factors and disease

In other words, when a temporary annoyance becomes a chronic source of stress, it may increase the risk of serious health complications such as heart disease and stroke.

In 2011, the World Health Organisation estimated that environmental noise caused the loss of

at least one million healthy life years […] every year

in Western Europe, primarily through annoyance and sleep disturbance causing stress and increased risk of disease. What’s worse, noise pollution tends to be more severe in more economically disadvantaged areas, which often have higher population densities and less effective enforcement of noise pollution standards.

And things are getting worse over time - a 2011 study from Sweden found that disturbances from noise pollution from sources like neighbours, road traffic, railways and aircraft increased substantially in the ten-year period between 1997 and 2007.

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Welcome to the A Soft Murmur blog

This is where you will find news about A Soft Murmur, and articles on sound, focus and relaxation.

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