But now researchers are looking beyond the visual to examine why natural sounds have a restorative effect on our psyche.
A recent study from the Brighton and Sussex Medical School in England has found sounds from nature physically alter the connections in our brains. The research, published in the Journal Scientific Reports, associates natural sounds with a decrease in the body’s flight-or-fight response.
The study explains why a walk on the beach or through the bush is so calming – but what does that mean for those of us that work in an office?
“Most humans spend 87 per cent of our lives indoors and another six per cent in the car. The built environment has become our habitat,” says Marcus Rose, country manager for audio pioneer Plantronics’ Habitat Soundscaping product.
Biophilia – which literally means a love of living things – is a design philosophy which incorporates natural elements into the built form.
“Biophilic design can lower blood pressure and heart rate, minimise the production of stress hormones, influence circadian rhythms and elevate mood.
“In the workplace, biophilic design can support productive, healthy and happy workplaces. But we need to ask: what makes office workers unhappy in the first place?”
The answer, Rose says, is noise.
A study from Oxford Economics, released in June, found just one per cent of the 1,200 office workers surveyed could block out distractions and concentrate without taking extra steps. Sixty-three per cent of employees said they lacked quiet space for focused work, which had a negative impact on their productivity, satisfaction and wellbeing.
“People adopt a whole host of makeshift solutions to counteract their noisy workplaces – from noise-cancelling headphones to avoiding the office altogether,” Rose explains.
“Some workplaces have turned to white or pink noise – imagine eight hours of listening to a TV station without reception – which covers up distracting speech yet can cause stress.”
Several scientific studies have found that white noise can induce the release of stress hormones, which in turn can impair the brain’s ability to plan, reason, retain information and control impulses.
“Our brains are unable to ignore human speech, making it difficult for us to focus on our work.”
When audio pioneer Plantronics encountered noise problems in its own open plan office, it turned to nature for solutions.
One breakthrough study from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Healthin 2011 found that the sound of natural spring water is the best ‘speech masker’ – above pink noise, instrumental music, vocal music or ventilation noise.
Other research has foundthat sounds from nature – particularly of running water – were preferred to typical office acoustics. Even compared to silence, the water sounds elevated the productivity scores of study participants.
Applying this research to its own workplace, Plantronics developed Habitat Soundscaping, a solution which combines sight, sound and science to create the perfect balance between wellbeing and productivity.
“Habitat Soundscaping brings together water sounds with nature-inspired visuals and intelligent, adaptive software to harness the restorative power of nature,” Rose explains.
Water sounds – whether a running stream or rain on the roof – are matched with real water features or serene digital displays.
“The visual element is important, because people need to correlate what they hear with what they can see around them.”
Patent-pending technology, built into the Habitat Soundscaping solution, intelligently monitors workplace acoustics. Distraction sensors detect changing noise levels and dynamically adjust speaker volume in surrounding areas to support collaboration without disrupting nearby focused work.
“By minimising distractions, workers engaged in thoughtful, detailed work can stay in the zone, regardless of what’s happening around them,” Rose adds.
“Nature relieves stress, rejuvenates the senses, and satisfies our most innate human needs. For those of us who can’t spend our days wandering through the woods or working beside a waterfall, Habitat Soundscaping brings that natural, restorative connection to the office.”
Learn more about Habitat Soundscaping by Plantronics: www.habitat.plantronics.com