Scientists have been studying the connection between nature and mental health for years, but their findings have come under increased scrutiny since the COVID-19 pandemic.
As people grappled with lockdowns and the anguish of getting sick, many turned to nature walks to find some relief. Most research, however, has focused on green or blue spaces and not on the flora and fauna that live in these environments.
A new study, published in the journal Nature, has found that seeing or hearing birds is associated with improved mental well-being that can last for up to 8 hours. These benefits have been seen in both healthy people and those with clinical depression, suggesting that birdwatching may help people with mental disorders.
What are the researchers saying?
Researchers at Kings College London used a smartphone app called Urban Mind to collect real-time data on the mental well-being of nearly 1,300 people when they saw or heard birds. Three times a day, the app asked participants if they saw or heard birds and asked about their mental well-being.
According to the researchers, the links between birds and mental well-being cannot be explained by other environmental factors, such as the presence of trees, plants or waterways.
“This exciting research underscores how the sight and sound of birdsong lifts spirits,” said researcher Jo Gibbons. “She provides intriguing evidence that a biodiverse environment is restorative in terms of mental well-being.
Using the app, researchers were able to assess the impact of birdlife on everyday mental health. Most other studies have relied on memories from the past or artificial frameworks for experimentation. The researchers, however, said they could not establish a definitive causal relationship due to the observational nature of the study.
The healing power of nature.
According to the American Psychological Association, previous research has linked exposure to nature to improved attention, decreased stress, improved mood, reduced risk of psychiatric disorders and even increased empathy and cooperation.
A 2021 study found that children living in urban areas have better mental health and better cognitive development if they live near forested areas and spend time there every day. Researchers have also found that they have a lower risk of emotional and behavioral problems.
Other research has focused specifically on the healing powers of birds. In 2020, the UK’s Natural History Museum conducted a bird song survey and found that 73% of respondents said they heard louder bird songs during the COVID-19 lockdown. And many said they felt comforted by the sounds.
Dr Eleanor Ratcliffe, a senior lecturer in environmental psychology at the University of Surrey, England, has studied how birdsong can restore attention and alleviate stress.
His research has shown that the benefits of birdsong depend on the type of bird and the association the person has with it. For example, one study participant found the soft chirping of clucking chickens relieved her stress. For he reminded her of how her own chickens gathered around her in the garden, waiting for her to give them slugs. Another participant made the most of the sound of wood pigeons, which reminded her of the summers of her childhood.
A 2020 study found a clear association between bird species diversity and people’s happiness. The researchers calculated that being close to 14 additional bird species gave as much satisfaction as earning an extra $150 per month.