What happens to your Brain When you see a bird in Nature?
This was the title of a recent leading article in the National Geographic virtual magazine. Obviously, it captured my attention and the more I read the more I realized that there is a definite connection to stress reduction. A study done at King’s College London and published in scientific reports (August 2022) examined the immediate effects on well-being when the study subjects were in green spaces of nature and seeing/hearing birds at the same time. After statistical analysis the data showed that people rated their well-being in the moment highest when birds were present. The analysis eliminated the presence of nature (trees, plants, and water) thus isolating the positive effects of birds on human emotions. The positive effects were found regardless of whether the participant had a prior diagnosis of depression/anxiety or no mental health issues.
The 1,292 participants were volunteers who agreed to use a smartphone app to fill out a 5-point Likert scale (Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree) questionnaire when randomly pinged 3 times a day for 2 weeks asking their current location (seeing plants or trees or water) and if they were seeing/hearing birds at that moment. They also completed 10 questions about their mental well-being at that moment. Five questions asked about positive well-being (I am feeling confident, relaxed, happy, connected to other people, and energetic). Five questions asked about negative well-being (I am feeling anxious, stressed, down, lonely, and tired).
As this was the first such study, more data is required to make generalized statements. The King’s College study participants were mostly white, middle-aged, college-educated, and employed women. The findings raise questions about what is happening in our brains when we see birds or hear bird song? Would a functional MRI pick that up? Can the same effects be found across cultures? How long does the effect last?
This study has also prompted the exploration of theories as to why nature is so powerful at reducing stress and improving present time wellbeing. One theory is that homosapiens evolved in nature and living in urban environments creates a constant background of stress. Thus, we can best recover in nature because that is where we evolved and were meant to be. A second theory is called an attention restoration theory. It proposes that the constant strain of daily life- stressful commutes and constant Zoom calls-requires intense focus. Being in nature allows us to disengage from such an intense focus. Of course (as you might have already thought), neither theory accounts for the birds! Still, explore this for yourself. For example, do you agree that seeing a hummingbird sends an immediate burst of joy.