What happens to your brain when you see a bird in nature?
A new study has surprising insights into how spending time outside affects our wellbeing–and which parts of nature may be more therapeutic than others.
Published November 18, 2022
6 min read
Do you see a bird right now? Do you hear a bird chirping right now? You might be experiencing a mental health boost if you can hear one chirping.
A study recently published in the journal Science found that being in the presence of birds made people feel more positive.
For two weeks, study participants using a smartphone app were prompted to fill out a questionnaire three times a day. Participants were asked questions about their environment and mental health. The app’s data revealed a clear trend: study participants who saw birds were more likely than others to report feeling happier.
Research is increasingly finding that getting outside is good for our brains, which is why scientists want to know more about what aspects of nature may be the most therapeutic.
“This kind of study helps us understand how people’s everyday experience with specific elements of nature, such as birds, can be restorative,” says Lisa Nisbet, a psychologist at Trent University in Canada, who was not involved with this research.
Why study birds?
Andrea Mechelli, a psychologist at King’s College London and one of the paper’s authors, found himself studying the natural world by accident.
“I don’t have a particular agenda focused on nature myself. “I didn’t think we were going to show nature has a strong impact,” says Mechelli.
Instead, he was searching for answers to why people who live in cities seem to be more prone to mental illness, particularly psychosis.
In 2015, he created the smartphone app Urban Mind to search for patterns in users’ environments. How crowded was their community? They felt safe in their neighborhood. Could they see trees?
“Our first finding [was] that nature has a very powerful effect,” says Mechelli. His colleagues and Mechelli then began to wonder if certain aspects of nature were more advantageous than others.
In August, they published a study finding a positive effect from walking along canals or rivers. They looked at the impact of wildlife and used birds to study this.
How birds make you feel better
Their latest study included 1,292 participants, mainly in the United Kingdom and Europe, some of whom disclosed a professional mental health diagnosis such as depression.
Three times a day, the app pinged users’ phones: Can you see or hear birds?
The app pinged users’ phones three times a day: Can you see or hear birds? Are you happy?
With the data he collected, Mechelli performed a statistical analysis that found a discernible improvement in wellbeing when birds were present, even when eliminating other factors like the presence of trees or waterways. Both people with a diagnosis of depression and those without such a condition were able to see the mental health benefits.
Nature, Mechelli notes, isn’t a cure all. For example, if participants noted that their neighborhood felt unsafe, the presence of birds and trees didn’t make them feel better.
But what don’t we know?
Before extrapolating major takeaways from the paper, Peter James, an environmental health scientist at Harvard who was not involved in the study, would like to see more data.
The study, for instance, relied on volunteers, a majority of whom were college-educated white women. Research published last May found that environmental health studies like these lack diversity.
When analyzing the data, researchers also combined the app’s options for positive and negative emotions into two broad categories, which only allows a glimpse into an individual’s wellbeing.
Yet, James and other scientists note the study provides an interesting insight into how specific parts of nature may influence wellbeing.
“Identifying and appreciating birds and other wildlife seems [to be] a promising avenue for nature-based health and wellbeing interventions.” says Nisbet.
Using nature in a treatment plan
Scientists have two main theories for why nature may be a soothing balm for our overworked minds. The first is that because homo sapiens evolved in nature, urban environments create a constant background stress.
“And we can recover from that stress in natural settings because that’s what we evolved for,” James says of the theory. “We as human beings like nature because that’s where we’re meant to be.”
The second theory is called attention restoration theory. Similar to the first theory, it states that constant stress in daily life (stressful commutes and constant Zoom phone calls) requires intense focus. Nature allows us to relax and observe birds flying from one branch to the next.
Regardless of the cause, knowing how trees, streams, or birds affect mood helps treatment providers integrate nature into their care.
A study first published in 1984 found that hospital patients recovering from surgery took fewer painkillers and had a shorter recovery if they also had a room with a view of nature. Another study looking at COVID-19 lockdown habits found those who spent time in nature reported less depression, anxiety, and stress.
At Mechelli’s clinical practice in London, he focuses on early intervention therapies and frequently works with young people. He suggests that his patients take walks to see the plants and wildlife in the city.
“It has no side effects,” he says. “It’s something they could try, and they have nothing to lose.”
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.