The Wavelength Project was an art/science collaboration that began in 2015 between Mark Ware and Prof Hugo D Critchley and his colleagues at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, Brighton and Sussex Medical School, University of Sussex. Their collaboration focused on the potential benefits of exposure to the natural environment in terms of wellbeing and health, and how an understanding of how we respond to nature might inform the design of the built environment where sensory monotony and ‘nature-deprivation’ are issues.
They began by studying how ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ sounds might affect bodily systems. The outcomes of this research were published in Brighton and Sussex Medical School’s Pulse Magazine (Autumn/Winter 2017):
It’s true – the sounds of nature really do help us relax
The gentle burbling of a brook, birdsong or the sound of the wind in the trees are well known for helping us to relax. Now a science-art collaboration at BSMS has shown how the interplay between body and mind actually makes this happen.
Researchers found that playing ‘natural sounds’ reduces our fight-or-flight instinct, through a series of connections between the body and the brain.
Naturalistic sounds and ‘green’ environments have long been linked with feelings of relaxation and wellbeing, and previous research has shown that exposure to naturalistic environmental stimuli has a positive impact on a patient’s experience of general anaesthesia and their post-operative recovery, along with reduced pain and anxiety in hospice care. However, until now there has been no scientific consensus as to how this sense of relaxation comes about.
“We are all familiar with the feeling of relaxation and ‘switching-off’ which comes from a walk in the countryside, and now we have evidence from the brain and the body which helps us understand this effect,” says Dr Cassandra Gould van Praag, Research Fellow at BSMS. “This exciting art-science collaboration has produced results which may have a real-world impact, particularly for people who are experiencing high levels of stress.”
Measuring brain and body responses
Working with audio-visual artist Mark Ware, the team conducted an experiment in which participants performed a task while listening to sounds recorded from natural and artificial environments. Their brain activity was measured in an MRI scanner and tiny changes in their heart rate were recorded by monitors, to measure the effect on their autonomic nervous system – the part of the nervous system that controls the bodily functions not consciously directed, including breathing, the heartbeat and digestive processes.
Natural sounds in the experiment included waves crashing on the shore, the wind in the trees and in hedgerows, rivers and reeds and thunderstorms, while artificial sounds included the inside of a car, a hairdryer, the interior of a train and traffic.
The team found that the sounds playing in the background affected the activity in the default mode network of the brain (a collection of areas which are active when we are resting).
When listening to natural sounds, this network showed an outward-directed focus of attention, meaning participants were more relaxed. When listening to artificial sounds, there was a more inward-directed focus of attention, similar to what can be seen in people suffering from anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
Listening to natural sounds also corresponded to an increase in rest-digest or parasympathetic nervous system activity, which is linked to relaxation of the body, along with better performance in the task to monitor their attention. Interestingly, the amount of change in nervous system activity depended on how stressed people were before going into the experiment. Those who demonstrated evidence of the greatest stress beforehand then showed the greatest increase in parasympathetic response – which helps the body relax – when listening to natural sounds. Those who were already relaxed actually showed a slight increase in sympathetic response, which is linked to stress, when listening to natural compared with artificial sounds.
Making a difference
The study of environmental exposure effects is of growing interest in physical and mental health settings, and greatly influences issues of public health and town planning.
“Understanding how natural sounds affect our body and brain means we can work on creating more relaxing environments for people to live and work,” says Dr Gould van Praag. “It can also feed into the development of new treatments for those suffering from conditions such as anxiety and depression.”
The team are now expanding this project with Mark Ware to develop multisensory investigations into combinations of sounds, light, images, taste, touch and temperature. “Ultimately, we aim to find ways of applying the outcomes of these investigations to help people in environments where sensory monotony is an issue, or where they may feel anxious, such as hospitals,” says Mark Ware, whose contribution to the collaboration was supported with public funding by Arts Council England.’
(Copyright Pulse Magazine (Autumn/Winter 2017)
The outcomes of this research were published in a Nature Scientific Reports paper.
Of this collaboration, Prof Critchley commented, “The collaboration with Mark Ware gives us the opportunity to take our academic knowledge in neuroscience, behaviour and emotion beyond the laboratory to explore, test and illustrate our questions and insights through engagement with a public audience in real-world settings. Concurrently, the interdisciplinary discussions, and the exchange of questions and ideas, enables us to draw from the expertise and intuitions arising from Mark Ware’s technical training, artistic creativity and production, informed in part by his lived experience of his stroke.”
Mark’s contribution to the investigations into natural versus artificial sounds was supported by Arts Council England and Kent Wildlife Trust.