Many people flock to cities, but can urban areas actually be detrimental to mental health? A study published in Nature’s Scientific Reports suggests that traffic sounds may be related to increased depression, while birdsongs may be related to reduced anxiety.
Our environments have profound effects on our mental health. While many young people want to live in cities and experience a fast-paced urban lifestyle, there are some significant disadvantages that come with it. One such disadvantage can be hearing the bustle of traffic and people constantly. Past research has shown that man-made soundscapes, such as traffic, can trigger alertness, while nature sounds help people relax.
The new study sought to expand the body of research by testing the psychological differences of hearing traffic or nature sounds. Additionally, this study explored the difference between high-diversity and low-diversity soundscapes in regard to nature vs city sounds.
For their study, Emil Stobbe and colleagues recruited 295 participants online from Prolific. All participants were German-speaking adults. Participants were excluded if they had any mental illness in their lifetime or if they had hearing difficulties. Participants completed sociodemographic information and baseline assessments first.
After being randomly assigned to one of the four conditions (low diversity traffic, high diversity traffic, low diversity birdsong, high diversity birdsong), participants were instructed to set their volume to 80% and listen to the 6-minute audio. Participants completed measures on psychosis liability, mood and paranoid symptoms, cognition, and soundscape perception.
“Everyone has certain psychological dispositions. Healthy people can also experience anxious thoughts or temporary paranoid perceptions. The questionnaires enable us to identify people’s tendencies without their having a diagnosis of depression, anxiety, and paranoia and to investigate the effect of the sounds of birds or traffic on these tendencies,” explained Stobbe, a predoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development.
Results showed significant effects of both sound type and diversity. The urban traffic noise was associated with higher post-test depression, while the birdsongs were related to reduced post-test anxiety and paranoia. This effect differed somewhat by diversity, with high diversity traffic sounds increasing post-test depression more than low diversity traffic sounds.
The diversity effect was not as profound for the birdsong condition. Traffic sounds were not found to significantly raise anxiety or paranoia. This study, contrary to previous research, found no evidence that the soundscapes had a significant effect on pre vs post-test cognitive abilities. These results can be utilized to help people with high anxiety or paranoia that does not reach a clinically significant level relax.
“Birdsong could also be applied to prevent mental disorders. Listening to an audio CD would be a simple, easily accessible intervention. But if we could already show such effects in an online experiment performed by participants on a computer, we can assume that these are even stronger outdoors in nature,” said Stobbe.
This study took important steps into better understanding soundscapes and their effects on wellbeing. Despite this, there are some limitations to note. One such limitation is that this study cannot speak to the replicability of this effect, and it is possible that after repeat exposure these sounds would not have any significant effect on mental health variables. Additionally, this study had more male than female participants, which can affect generalizability.
The study, “Birdsongs alleviate anxiety and paranoia in healthy participants“, was authored by E. Stobbe, J. Sundermann, L. Ascone, and S. Kühn.