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.

In the first round of tests (before participants listend to any sounds), both groups performed around the same level, as would be expected.

In the second round of tests, people who had listened to nature sounds performed significantly better than people who had listened to urban sounds. The difference between the two groups was sizeable - the study authors describe it as “medium-to-large”. This provides some evidence that nature sounds might hold some benefit to cognitive performance when compared to urban sounds, but of course this is just one small study, so the results shouldn’t be taken as fact.

For this study, “nature sounds” meant birdsong, moving water, chirping insects, and wind. “Urban sounds” meant traffic, cafe ambiance, and machinery like air conditioners.

Another interesting facet is that participants preferred the nature sounds over the urban sounds, but a standardized measure of “affect” (which loosely means mood) found no significant difference between the urban sound and nature sound groups. In other words, people said they liked the nature sounds more, but the nature sounds didn’t measurably improve how good people felt compared to the urban sounds.

Does this all mean that you should prioritize listening to birdsong and waves rather than air conditioners and traffic if you’re trying to study or finish a work task? In my opinion, there’s not nearly enough evidence yet to support that view. But it might be worth trying, to see if you notice any difference in your own mental performance. If you do, please let me know!

– Gabriel