Effects of Nature and Birdsong on Cognition, Attention, and Wellbeing

Alex Yeghikian (Author) and Sonya A. Ashikyan (Mentor)

Walking around UCLA, you might hear the trill of a Bewick’s wren, the clicks of a California towhee, or the chirping of a dark-eyed junco. With a careful eye, you might even see one perched on a branch or flying swiftly by. We might not pay much attention to the birds around us during our day-to-day goings on, but they are no doubt an integral part of our natural surroundings. But can our feathered friends help us learn, focus, or feel better about ourselves? Science says they can!

Although many people already view nature as something beneficial at a primal level, two scientific theories offer an explanation as to why this might actually be the case. Attention Restoration Theory (ART) is based on the idea that the brain becomes fatigued over time as it must inhibit distractions to maintain focus on a given task, a phenomenon known as directed attention fatigue. It asserts that these mental resources can be restored through exposure to fascinating stimuli that involuntarily and effortlessly attract one’s attention, given that they are part of an environment that meets certain criteria, such as providing a sense of being away (i.e., a psychological escape), offering an opportunity for exploration, and being compatible with the task at hand (Kaplan, 1985). Spending time in nature, which is full of such stimuli from a babbling brook to a tree-lined path, is thus asserted by ART to offer rest and restore concentration and cognitive performance, and studies support the notion that natural environments demand less mental effort to process than urban ones (Grassini et al., 2019). Stress Reduction Theory (SRT) focuses instead on the physiological restorative effects of nature, claiming that a biological response to stress motivates a change in environment and that characteristics of a natural environment promote positive emotions and attention that reduces said stress. This is more grounded in an evolutionary perspective that argues humans are innately predisposed to more strongly direct attention towards and respond positively to natural environments (Ulrich et al., 1991).

Many studies in the past few decades have investigated the psychological and physiological effects of nature, primarily based on these foundational theories. It has been demonstrated, for instance, that taking a break by walking in a natural environment such as a park as opposed to an urban environment such as a street results in better performance on tasks measuring cognition and attention as well as measures measuring mood and anxiety (Berman et al., 2008; Bratman et al., 2015). Fascinatingly however, more recent studies have looked at different senses individually and discovered that restorative effects are also observed when nature scenes are merely seen, or sounds of nature heard. Similar effects on affect, cognition, and attention are observed using those conditions, while pictures of cityscapes or manmade noise such as traffic do not contribute towards a restful break (Stobbe et al., 2022; Van Hedger et al., 2019; Alvarsson et al., 2010, Benfield et al., 2014).

Within nature sounds as a whole, birds specifically have been identified as influential. Of all animals in the natural soundscape birds contribute the most, dedicating considerable energy towards acoustic activity year-round and especially during breeding season (Farina et al., 2011). The ubiquity of birdsong in natural environments therefore shapes our perception of those environments. Various quantitative and qualitative studies by Eleanor Radcliffe et al. (2013, 2020) have determined that individuals generally perceive birdsong as restorative from stress and attention fatigue, depending however on personal experiences with nature, compatibility with current goals, and various properties of the specific species’ song in question. As such, many explorations of natural audio on psychology and physiology solely utilize or otherwise heavily incorporate birdsong, with results as mentioned. Studies specifically investigating associations between interactions with birds and wellbeing corroborate such findings over time as well (Hammoud et al., 2022).

What do these findings mean for us? Exposure to nature in general and birds specifically has been demonstrated to be able to promote rejuvenation and boost wellbeing. Indeed, access to nature in general has been found time and time again to equate with better health outcomes, greater mental wellbeing, and overall happiness. However, these results also underscore the importance of protecting greenspace and natural environments amidst a worldwide trend of ever-increasing urbanization. One study has found that an increase in residential distance from a natural outdoor environment was associated with poorer cognitive performance (Ziljema et al., 2017). Another investigating a correlation between biodiversity and life satisfaction found that a 10% increase in the number of bird species found in an area is associated with a roughly 1.53-fold increase in life satisfaction compared to a proportional increase in income, equivalent to around $200 (Methorst et al., 2021). In fact, simply perceiving that a space has more species richness is associated with greater psychological benefit (Belaire et al., 2015). Here at UCLA, we are fortunate to be home to hundreds of bird and plant species and to have spaces such as the Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden on campus. The next time you find yourself under the stress of midterms or in need of a pick-me-up, it might just be worthwhile to step outside and let nature get to work.

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