Lifestyle & Culture

Noise versus nature

Sarah Webb asks would you rather be listening to Peking Duk or chirping birds?

Woman with headphone

Shhh! Our noise is taking the luster off our natural wonders, and its affecting the way we tune into the world. That’s according to researchers at the US National Park Service and elsewhere, who study natural soundscapes to gauge how they’re affected by human activity.

I introduce to you: generation disconnect.

Today’s headphone-wearing generation risks forgetting how to listen – I mean, really ‘listen’ – leaving them deaf to the beauty of nature.

Dr Kurt Fristrup, a senior scientist with the US National Park Service, worries that our modern-day obsession with wearing earphones and the cacophony of contemporary society could dull the next generation’s appreciation of natural soundscapes and lead to a “learned deafness”.

“The gift that we’re born with – to be able to reach out and hear things that are hundreds of metres away, all these incredibly subtle sounds – it’s in danger of being lost to generational amnesia,” Fristrup says.

With everyday life becoming noisier, it’s not surprising that people put on headphones to try to block out certain distractions. However, Fristrup says this can lead to young people forgetting how to listen when they take their earphones out.

“We condition ourselves to ignore the information coming through our ears,” he says. Speaking at the 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual conference in California, Kurt said when he goes hiking, his friends are almost deaf to the dozens of aircraft flying overhead. As a result, his peers were astonished when he told his friends how many jets, helicopters and other planes had passed by.

As a result, Fristrup and other researchers underline the benefits of listening to nature.

Studies from the Pennsylvania State University have shown that the subtle sounds of the great outdoors, such as birdsong, the rustling of wind through the trees, and flowing streams, tend to have a soothing effect on people, while the noise of a motorised vehicle is more likely to put you ‘on-edge’.

So before you take those mid-year exams, turn down the music and tune into nature for a change!

In one experiment, these sounds helped people who’d been given just a few minutes warning of giving a speech to relax faster. In contrast, those who heard the revving of motorbikes and other man-made noises took longer to calm down than those who heard nothing at all.

In a second experiment, people found it easier to remember and recite a long number if they listened to natural sounds first. Interestingly, these sounds had to be loud to be effective. This may be because young people who were being tested have lost the ability to properly hear what is going on around them, as suggested by Dr Fristrup.

So is Mother Nature doomed to be drowned out by ‘noise’? Not necessarily.

As we become more technologically deep as a society, it’s become important for us to spend even more time amongst nature. There are things that we can learn in a more interactive fashion than through technology. Yet, I believe there is a way for them to blend together. It’s also technology that can potentially enable us to save our planet and rebuild a new relationship with nature.



Image: Sascha Kohlmann, Flickr, no changes made.


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