Our sense of hearing is incredibly powerful. It’s no wonder really, because our ears are the product of hundreds of millions of years of evolution. They can pick up on tiny sonic clues in our surroundings that instantly tell us whether a space is safe, comfortable and restorative.
Step inside a modern workplace and there’s a good chance you won’t feel any of those things. Instead, there may even be a strange sense of unease or stress. Some workplaces are dominated by other people’s conversations and air conditioning. Others now have an eerie lack of sound, as people continue to stay away after the COVID-19 lockdowns.
Modern buildings face an array of challenges with sound, but most have one trait in common: they aren’t reflective of the natural environments we evolved to survive in. Whether there’s too much or too little of it, the sound of our buildings tends to be stress-inducing and unnatural.
We need nature to feel good. This isn’t just a vague idea, it’s a scientific finding that’s been demonstrated in hundreds of peer-reviewed papers. As we spend more and more time indoors, many people are nature-deficient. We’re lacking the sensory richness and therapeutic benefits that the great outdoors brings.
“Biophilic design” has become common in many professions. Architects, for example, draw on influences from nature like shape, texture and color, to create spaces that are scientifically healthier because of their link to the natural world. But it isn’t just our eyes that can benefit from biophilic design. The sounds of nature can transform indoor spaces too.
To understand why nature sound is so good for us, researchers used an MRI scanner to compare what was happening in people’s brains when they heard natural and artificial sounds. When people heard artificial sounds, they found that the brain had an “inward-directed” focus of attention, similar to brain states found in people with anxiety and depression.
Natural sounds produced the opposite effect. People’s brains showed an “outward-directed” attention of focus that’s associated with restoration and relaxation. It’s a feeling you might have experienced during a long peaceful walk in nature — except this was just from listening to a few minutes of nature sound.
It’s not just our psychology that changes when we hear the sounds of nature, either. Our ears evolved as our primary warning system, so it’s no surprise that sound can have powerful effects on our bodies and behavior too. Nature soundscapes can have physical effects, like calming our breathing, heart-rate and muscle tension.
If we think back to the modern office, you can probably now imagine how nature-based soundscapes have the potential to benefit people at work.
First off, there’s cognitive processing. By encouraging these more relaxed, open states, nature sound helps people perform better on tasks, whether they’re attention-based or creative ones. In fact, nature soundscapes have been shown to be even more productive than silence.
Second, there’s wellbeing. Healthier sound in buildings can counter many symptoms of stress and anxiety, both in our bodies and our brains. The more stressed or anxious someone is to begin with, the more marked the wellbeing benefit likely will be to them.
And third, we can use soundscapes to connect people to the outside world. Hearing certain natural sounds can cue our bodies’ circadian rhythms (our “biological clocks”), helping us feel more awake in the day and sleep better at night.
Soundscaping technology has the ability to create cadences throughout the day — without any unnatural loops — so that even if we have to spend all day indoors, our bodies are still connected to the outside world.
Our buildings are evolving faster than ever before, driven by the imperative to foster wellbeing and improve the quality of experience indoors. Technological developments have allowed for intelligent, dynamic and configurable soundscaping technologies to become a scalable solution to many of the challenges faced in commercial real estate today.