Everyone should probably spend more time appreciating nature during the workday. Mounting evidence suggests that walking in the park during lunch or even just having a plant on your desk can help boost focus, mood, and productivity. But those are the effects of visual stimulation. What does the science say about incorporating the sound of nature into our working lives?
Erin Largo-Wight and colleagues at the University of North Florida looked at how nature sounds affect people’s physiology and psychology. In their unpublished study (now under review at Public Health Reports) they measured pulse rate, muscle tension, and self-reported stress of 40 people and then had participants listen for 15 minutes to one of three sounds: silence, Mozart, and ocean waves. Afterward, the researchers again collected physiological data and asked participants about their stress levels.
They saw no significant change for people who listened to silence or classical music, but the subjects who listened to ocean waves had considerably lower muscle tension, heart rates, and self-reported stress—basically, a less strained mental and physical state. The team also saw positive changes occur relatively quickly, within five to seven minutes of listening to nature. The researchers didn’t specifically study workspaces, but their findings suggest that places like offices could use strategic sound design to revitalize workers. “With stress such as a heavy workload, our cognitive resources become fatigued with overuse,” says Largo-Wight, a professor of public health. “The idea is that nature can restore us cognitively.”
Another new study (also unpublished) from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute looked directly at nature acoustics in the office. The researchers wanted to know whether the sound would help or hurt people’s concentration while they work, and also how it compares to conventional white noise systems used in open-plan offices today. Acoustician Jonas Braasch and his grad student, Alana DeLoach, had 12 people sit in a simulated office space and listen to different sounds—white noise, the sound of flowing water, normal office noise, or silence—while they performed a difficult task. The participants listened for six minutes to a sound during the cognitive task, and they tried all four sounds. Braasch and DeLoach measured people’s performance each time and then asked which sound they preferred and which one helped them focus best. They found no difference in performance between any of the sounds (except that complete silence made people do worse on the task) and the majority of people said they concentrated best with, and preferred, flowing water sounds.
Braasch says it makes sense that people didn’t perform better with the flowing water compared to white noise—during a challenging task, people likely don’t pay close enough attention to natural sound to gain any benefit from it. But in separate experiment, he and another of his grad students showed that listening to natural sounds (birdcalls) during a break can boost performance afterward. He says that the two studies complement each other, although they still need to test more people. Their results suggest that a natural soundscape in the office could refresh people during breaks without distracting them while they’re hard at work.
Both of Braasch’s studies have yet to go through peer review, but they and Largo-Wight’s research follow the generally accepted idea that nature has restorative powers. Braasch thinks natural sounds may have this effect because they create a superior environment for people to work in. “People didn’t rush through the test and could focus better,” he explains, “Natural sounds may provide a more comfortable environment where people are satisfied.” Braasch says this idea could also apply to other stressful environments, like hospitals, where nature sounds may potentially help people recuperate better.
Of course, not all nature sounds work the same—the cacophony of a zoo or constant birdcalls would probably distract people, and playing a short loop of sound would get repetitive and annoying. “We need to be able to keep up the illusion of natural space,” says Braasch. This sound design could even go as far as mimicking the daily biorhythms of an ecosystem like a forest, and incorporating weather data so that the sounds in our offices fluctuate throughout the day as they do in nature. And maybe, for a minute, it’ll even trick us into thinking we’re outside enjoying ourselves, and not just stuck inside at work.