Nature sounds improve focus more than urban sounds

Reference: Van Hedger, S. C., Nusbaum, H. C., Clohisy, L., Jaeggi, S. M., Buschkuehl, M., & Berman, M. G. (2018). Of cricket chirps and car horns: The effect of nature sounds on cognitive performance. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

Guest post by Taylor Petti

Have you ever wondered if an urban soundscape or a nature soundscape would be more beneficial when trying to focus?  Maybe you have a big report or presentation that you need to work on and you’re trying to get in the right headspace to be able to focus.  Should you open your window to hear the sounds of city traffic and construction, or running water and chirping birds? Recent research by Hedger et al. (2018) suggests that the latter may be most beneficial when preparing to focus on an attentionally-demanding task.

Hedger et al. (2018) aimed to study the effect that nature and urban sounds have on cognitive performance.  Two theories mentioned by the researchers that may play a role in cognitive performance are Attention Restoration Theory (ART) and Stress Reduction Theory (SRT).  ART proposes that exposure to nature improves focus by capturing involuntary attention and allowing us to focus our directed attention more effectively (1).  SRT, on the other hand, suggests that the aesthetic value of nature sounds contributes to a positive affect, or emotional state, which in turn lowers stress and thus improves directed attention (2).

The authors investigated three hypotheses: 1) that nature sounds would improve performance on cognitive tasks requiring directed attention relative to urban sounds, 2) that nature sounds would be rated as more aesthetically pleasing that urban sounds, and 3) that nature sounds would increase positive affect and decrease negative affect more so than urban sounds.  Whereas ART predicts that the nature sounds would directly increase performance on directed attention tasks, SRT predicts that nature sounds would indirectly improve directed attention through increased positive affect.

Method

Participants were 65 adults from the University of Chicago campus and the surrounding community.  The study consisted of a pretest and posttest where all participants completed measures of affect and directed attention.  In between the pre- and post-tests, participants listened to 15 minutes of either 40 urban sounds or 40 nature sounds.  Some of the nature sounds that participants were exposed to included birdsongs, moving water, insects and wind, whereas some of the urban sounds included traffic, cafe ambiance, and machinery.  All these sounds were presented at the same amplitude so that it could be comfortably listened to.  After listening to each sound, participants then rated how aesthetically pleasing they were on a 3-point scale (like, neutral, dislike).

During the pre- and post-tests, affect was measured with the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS), in which participants rated (on a 5-point scale) the extent to which they felt  a list of 10 positive emotions and 10 negative emotions.  Directed attention was measured with the dual n-back task and the backward digit span task.  For the dual n-back task, participants were presented with visual and auditory stimuli and had to identify when it matched the target auditory or visual stimulus.  For the backward digit span task, participants were presented with a sequence of 3-9 digits and subsequently had to recall them in backward order.

Procedure used by Van Hedger et al. (2018)

Results

The results revealed that improvement on the directed attention tasks (from pre- to post-intervention) was greater for those who listened to nature sounds compared to those who listened to urban sounds.  Nature sounds were also aesthetically preferred over urban sounds, but this was not shown to impact participants’ affect.  Specifically, ratings on the PANAS were lower on the posttest than on the pretest for both the urban and nature sound groups; the soundscapes had no influences on affect.  These findings suggest that differences in directed attention were a result of the actual sounds themselves — not driven by the affective responses to each soundscape (as predicted by SRT).  Notably, the effects cannot be explained by the amplitude of the particular sounds, as all nature and urban sounds were played at a similar volume.

So, what?

In conclusion, these results support the Attention Restoration Theory because nature sounds improved performance on directed attention task more than urban sounds.  In contrast, the researchers did not find support for the Stress Reduction Theory, as changes in affect did not influence cognitive performance.  However, because there was no control group that took the pretests and posttests without being exposed to either nature sounds or urban sounds, we can only understand the effects of each soundscape on performance in relation to each other.  In addition, the researchers asked about affect on the PANAS “over the past few hours,” which may have been too broad of a time frame to detect any changes from pre to posttest given that the experimental tasks took only about an hour for participants to complete.

So, next time you’re preparing to focus on a demanding task, you may want to consider listening to the sounds of chirping birds rather than the bustle of the city.  However, further research is needed to discover if simply sitting in silence before working would be the superior option.

Taylor is a sophomore studying Psychology and Human Resource Management at Kent State University.  She is pursuing these fields because she has a love for working with people and understanding how they function. While she’s at Kent, you can find Taylor working under the office of Student Success Programs, where she supports students in their experience at the University.  When away from her studies and work, Taylor enjoys raising backyard chickens and hanging out with her corn snake.

Additional References:

(1) Kaplan, S. (1995). The restorative benefits of nature: Toward an integrative framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology15(3), 169-182.

(2) Ulrich, R. S. (1983). Aesthetic and affective response to natural environment. In Behavior and the natural environment(pp. 85-125). Springer, Boston, MA.