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When life gets a bit too stressful,
you might feel like running off into the woods,
befriending a deer, and living off berries.
And science might actually think that’s a good idea,
at least as a way to destress.
Hanging out in a forest does seem to help your mental health.
There’s even a Japanese term for this.
it’s shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing.
But forests have a lot to offer.
They aren’t just a bunch of trees to look at.
They’re full of smells and sounds.
And last week, a study published in Scientific Reports proposed that
listening to birdsong may help your mental health, as well.
Past research had already demonstrated that
listening to birds could help people feel less stressed,
but this new study went a little further.
It looked at the impacts of sounds
on subclinical anxiety, depression, and paranoia,
in other words, those little negative feelings that we all get,
even if we don’t have a diagnosable mental disorder.
First, the participants had to answer a questionnaire
to assess their levels of depression, anxiety, and paranoia.
Plus, take a test on how many numbers and letters they could memorize.
Then, each participant listened to six minutes of
either singing birds or urban traffic sounds.
The birdsong recordings featured either two or eight different European species,
but both had subtle wind and water noises beneath the twittering.
Meanwhile, the traffic soundscapes consisted of
either eight cars driving around,
or eight different noise sources, like construction and sirens.
Once that six minute period was over,
they retook the questionnaire and memory test.
While neither kind of soundscape had an influence on memory,
there were differences between the mental health reports.
The people who listened to traffic reported an increase
in feelings associated with depression.
But for those who got to chill out to some singing birds,
their feelings of anxiety and paranoia decreased.
For those who listened to the track with eight different kinds of birds,
depression decreased a little, too.
The researchers suggest several reasons
why birdsong might have these effects.
Maybe we naturally associate birds with a peaceful,
unpolluted, lush environment, and that has a calming effect on us.
Or maybe since birds mostly sing
when predators and other threats aren’t around,
we might subconsciously take birdsong to mean that we are safe, too.
Or, it may just be that when we’re focusing on birdsong,
we have less attention available to focus on stressors.
Maybe all we need is a pleasant distraction.
Now, this doesn’t mean that listening to birdsong
is a cure-all for your mental health.
Future research will need to measure the effects on
people living with depression, anxiety, and other conditions.
But it does offer a potential alternative to
running off into a forest when you’re feeling anxious.
Maybe the sweet sounds of birds tweeting can help you out in a pinch,
even if you can’t get out of your home or office.
And sounds don’t just have the potential to impact your mood.
A study published this week in the journal Learning and Memory
used sounds to help people forget specific memories while they were sleeping.
In general, sleep is super important for memory.
It helps make new memories more stable
and easier to remember in the future.
Scientists do not know exactly how the process works,
but one hypothesis involves the brain reactivating those memories
and strengthening the pattern of connections between neurons
that our brains use to represent them.
And for the past decade or so,
researchers have been intentionally reactivating
specific memories during sleep
to get people to remember them better.
They’ll teach someone pairs of words during the day,
like dog and school,
and then play the sound of a dog barking while they sleep.
Playing the sound reactivates the memory of the word pair.
When the person wakes up, they will remember the word pair
better than those that were not reactivated while they slept.
But in this new research, a team tweaked the experiment
to weaken memories instead of strengthening them.
Right before going to bed, participants learned a bunch of
word pairs and a few lone control words.
The pairs were compiled using a combination of location-based words,
famous people’s names, and common objects.
The researchers created pairs in sets of two so that
they shared the same common object.
For example, the three words bicycle, Beckham and castle
比如bicycle Beckham castle这三个单词
formed the two word pairs bicycle-Beckham and bicycle-castle.
Each participant was shown both pairs,
but spaced out so that they couldn’t
figure out what the researchers were trying to do.
And each pair came with some audio reinforcement.
In this example, participants would hear the word “bicycle”.
Then, half of the participants were given
a memory test before they went to sleep.
For each question, they were shown one word they learned,
and had to match it with the other word in its pair.
While they were sleeping, the researchers played a recording
that listed a selection of the common object words.
The next morning, everyone took that
same style of memory test as before.
For the words played during sleep,
participants strengthened their memory
of whichever word pair they had learned first,
but weakened their memory of the pair they learned second.
So people who learned “bicycle-Beckham” before “bicycle-castle”,
and heard “bicycle” while they slept,
were more successful at picking
“Beckham” out of a set of famous names,
than picking “castle” out of a set of locations.
However, this was only true for word pairs
that didn’t get that little bit of extra reinforcement
during the pretest that 50% of people took.
The team isn’t quite sure
what brain mechanism is causing this forgetting.
Maybe the brain is focused on strengthening the memory that
was already stronger to begin with,
seeing the weaker, overlapping memory as unreliable noise.
So this is clearly research in its early stages.
But with more work, scientists will get a handle on
how sound can influence memory reactivation.
In the future, the technique of playing specialized sounds
while a person sleeps could help weaken memories
that are a lot more harmful than word pairs.
While preliminary studies like these can’t make any promises,
they do keep the research moving forward.
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