When it is time to create restaurative experiences for health and wellness, we have not only to work with the tools that the natural surrounding gives us, but also with the interaction with the sensory inputs it creates. It is not about focusing, but about stimulating and potentializing the effects of what is surrounding us through the senses.
Exploring and stimulating the senses can be a complex experience. Each person experiments and interacts with the surroundings depending on how the senses perceive it. And there are no two people who perceive the environment in the exact same way. This poses a series of interesting challenges when we are designing and presenting a forest bathing session.
By definition, we are visual beings. The sense of sight, in many cases, can monopolize in a very sensitive way our perception. Our eyes, take the surroundings in and locate us in it, The amount of information that one receives through sight is huge, and many times, makes us obviate other more subtle stimuli.
It is not about obviating the sensations from the ones which are more or less direct. A landscape, an object, or simply observation can achieve intense experiences of connection. But the exploration of the surroundings in search of the subtle sensations, makes us work at different levels, maybe on the more relevant, focusing our attention and making us totally aware of the present moment and place.
Let’s stop for a few seconds to listen. What are the sounds around us? Soft or intense? High or low ? How do we feel after spending some time listening to some cacophonic sound? How important is it to isolate ourselves from noise? How sound affects us physically and mentally, it is a field in which different studies have been developed. One of them, which is particularly interesting, was directed by Cassandra D. Gould van Praag, from the department of psychiatry at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, entitled “Mind-wandering and alterations to default mode network connectivity when listening to naturalistic versus artificial sounds”
It is interesting, and especially revealing, when the results are analyzed, such as how known natural sounds significantly affect the parasympathetic system, responsible for the activation of rest / digestion processes, and the increase in acetylcholine secretion, slowing down heart rate and activating the regulation of digestive and genitourinary system.
At the level of brain activity, the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners to which the study participants were subjected to, detected very significant differences in brain activity by hearing known natural sounds (focussing attention outwards), as opposed to artificial sounds (focus of attention inwards). This last observation is very relevant, since it is also observed similarly in anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorders and depression.
After analyzing the results of the study in more details, perhaps the two relevant words are relaxation and disconnection. A solid foundation is established in which known natural sounds are related to the relaxation and disconnection mechanisms of the body.
That is why, when planning and creating restorative experiences and well-being in nature, it is important to pay attention to the sounds that surround us and use them as an essential part of the sensory stimulation. It is interesting how the study also differentiates between known natural sounds, and unknown ones. Generally, anyone enjoys and relaxes with the sound of a flowing stream. But, in the moment that we hear something that we are not able to locate, the sympathetic system is activated, generating an alert response. It is important to keep this in mind when we look for natural environments suitable for the practice of forest bathing.
The sound exploration of natural environments is key when looking for places where you can work specifically with sounds. In woodland environments, the wind shaking the treetops, the sound of water near streams, the waves of the sea on a beach. Any of these examples represent very clearly the way in which sound generates a state of relaxation and well-being.
The sounds of familiar animals (birds, insects), the crunch of dry leaves under our feet, or the raindrops falling. It is interesting how the same space can sound differently at different times of the day. Fauna, weather and other environmental factors can be valuable tools to compose a unique and personal symphony of sounds.
Perhaps it is important to seek harmony and conjugate all stimuli coherently. Many times, we tend to look for landscapes or “postcard” places. This can become a problem, not so much because of the idealization we do in our mind, but because sensory supersaturation can become counterproductive. We seek to create useful and restorative experiences that provide participants with tools that can be taken back to their normal life, and used on a daily basis.
Whenever we are in the natural environment, in silence, a multitude of sounds will come to our attention. Finding the most beautiful, or the most suggestive, is irrelevant. Better, listening until we stop where it catches our attention. To take advantage of each possibility, each place, each space, and to extract from it the personal and non-transferable music that it possesses, is the best way to connect with that environment. And surely, to connect with some part of ourselves.
Looking for the sounds of a space will lead us to subtle and differentiated sensations, which will help our mind and body to calm down and relax. Something so simple as listening to our own footsteps. Simple and easy actions, which we usually do automatically, can become small moments of disconnection from the routine.