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.

By Sarah Gibbens
Published 25 Nov 2022, 11:59 GMT
At the Swayambhunath temple in Nepal, a visitor feeds pigeons. Birds ubiquitous in urban and rural ...
At the Swayambhunath temple in Nepal, a visitor feeds pigeons. Birds ubiquitous in urban and rural neighborhoods, and new research shows they may also boost your mental health.
Photograph by Jay Dickman, Nat Geo Image Collection

Do you see a bird right now? Can you hear one chirping? If so, you might be getting a mental health boost. 

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. They were asked questions about their surrounding environment and their mental state. Emerging from the app’s data was a discernible trend—study participants who saw birds were more likely to report a better mood. 

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 wasn't thinking we were going to demonstrate nature has a strong effect,” 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 city? Did they feel safe in their neighbourhood? Could they see trees? 

“Our first finding [was] that nature has a very powerful effect,” says Mechelli. He and his colleagues then wondered if some aspects of nature were more beneficial than others. 

In August, they published a study finding a positive effect from walking along canals or rivers. To study the effect of wildlife, they turned to birds for their ubiquity in rural and urban environments. 

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? Are you feeling happy or feeling down? 

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. The mental health benefit was true both for people who disclosed a depression diagnosis and those without any diagnosed mental health conditions.

Nature, Mechelli notes, isn’t a cure all. The presence of trees and birds, for example, didn’t result in a better sense of wellbeing if participants also noted their neighbourhood felt unsafe.

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 university-educated white women. Research published last May found that environmental health studies like these lack diversity. 

When analysing 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.

Ducks swim past lotuses in a Vietnamese pond. Everyday exposure to nature, including birdlife, has been linked to better health.
Photograph by Karen Kamasuki, Nat Geo Image Collection

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, it theorises that the constant strain of daily life—stressful commutes and constant Zoom calls—requires intense focus. Nature allows us to disengage that focus and engage in a sort of open-eyed meditation as we watch a bird flying from branch to branch. 

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. As one solution, he suggests his patients go for walks to observe the trees and plants growing in the city, and the wildlife fluttering by. 

“It has no side effects,” he says. “It’s something they could try, and they have nothing to lose.” 

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