Smartphone technology used to assess mental health benefits of birdlife
A growing body of empirical evidence is revealing the benefits of exposure to nature for mental health, including higher-level mental well-being and lower risk of mental illness1. However, the vast majority of the works in the literature have focused on the value of regular contact with green spaces, including forests, parks, gardens and trees. While these studies have led to growing appreciation of the mental health benefits of nature in general, we know little about the specific features which are drive these benefits.
For example, the mental health benefits of everyday encounters with birdlife for mental health are poorly understood. Earlier studies have typically relied on retrospective questionnaires or artificial set-ups with little ecological validity. In the United Kingdom, there is a captivation with birds underlined by the fact that more than 1.3 million people are members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Interest in birds is not just uniquely British: in the USA more than 70 million people have been recorded as interested in bird-watching, making this one of the most popular nature-based recreational activities. Further, bird-watching societies are not a phenomenon unique to the western world but are present worldwide, including countries with very different traditions and cultures.
Despite the human fascination with birdlife, few studies have specifically examined the effect of encountering birds as part of everyday life on our mental health.
Recently new and extensive research by researchers at King’s College, London has found that seeing or hearing birds is associated with an improvement in mental well-being that can last up to eight hours. This improvement was also evident in people with a diagnosis of depression (the most common mental illness worldwide) indicating the potential role of birdlife in helping those with mental health conditions. The study used an especially developed smartphone application to collect people’s real-time reports of mental well-being alongside their reports of seeing or hearing birdsong.
The project was funded by the Medical Research Council, National Institute for Health and Care Research, Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre and the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration South London.
To overcome the limitations of existing literature, the association between seeing or hearing birds and self-reported mental well-being (a strong predictor of mental health in the general population), was surveyed using a smartphone-based application. This ‘Urban Mind’ application (https://www.urbanmind.info/) uses Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA), a method which involves sampling people’s experiences in real-time and in real-world contexts. This technique allowed exploration of the relationship between the experience of seeing or hearing birds and mental well-being while minimising the risk of recall bias. The Urban Mind application also collected detailed information on the participants, allowing observers to explore how the effect of seeing or hearing birds on mental well-being depends on personal characteristics such as age, gender and having a diagnosis of mental illness.
Using the smartphone-based EMA, they carried out a ‘citizen science study’ which aimed to answer the following questions:
- Are encounters with birds as part of everyday life associated with higher mental well-being?
- Is the beneficial impact of everyday encounters with birds on mental well-being time-lasting?
- Does the beneficial effect of everyday encounters with birds on mental well-being differ between people with a diagnosis of depression and people without a mental health condition?
Lead author Ryan Hammoud, Research Assistant at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College (IoPPN) London, said: “There is growing evidence on the mental health benefits of being around nature and we intuitively think that the presence of birdsong and birds would help lift our mood. However, there is little research that has actually investigated the impact of birds on mental health in real-time and in a real environment. By using the Urban Mind app we have for the first time showed the direct link between seeing or hearing birds and positive mood. We hope this evidence can demonstrate the importance of protecting and providing environments to encourage birds, not only for biodiversity but for our mental health.”
The study took place between April 2018 and October 2021, with 1,292 participants completing 26,856 assessments using the Urban Mind app, developed by King’s College London, landscape architects J&L Gibbons and arts foundation Nomad Projects. Participants were recruited worldwide (including Australia), with the majority being based in the United Kingdom, the European Union and USA. The app asked participants three times a day whether they could see or hear birds, followed by questions on mental well-being to enable researchers to establish an association between the two and to estimate how long this association lasted.
The study also collected information on existing diagnoses of mental health conditions and found hearing or seeing birdlife was associated with improvements in mental well-being in both healthy people and those with depression. Researchers showed that the links between birds and mental well-being were not explained by co-occurring environmental factors such the presence of trees, plants, or waterways.
Senior author, Andrea Mechelli, Professor of Early Intervention in Mental Health at IoPPN said: “The term ecosystem services is often used to describe the benefits of certain aspects of the natural environment on our physical and mental health. However, it can be difficult to prove these benefits scientifically. Our study provides an evidence base for creating and supporting biodiverse spaces that harbour birdlife, since this is strongly linked with our mental health. In addition, the findings support the implementation of measures to increase opportunities for people to come across birdlife, particularly for those living with mental health conditions such as depression.”
Research partner Jo Gibbons of J & L Gibbons said: “Who hasn’t tuned into the melodic complexities of the dawn chorus early on a spring morning? A multi-sensory experience that seems to enrich everyday life, whatever our mood or whereabouts. This exciting research underpins just how much the sight and sound of birdsong lifts the spirits. It captures intriguing evidence that a biodiverse environment is restorative in terms of mental wellbeing. That the sensual stimulation of birdsong, part of those daily ‘doses’ of nature, is precious and time-lasting.”
Further research on a more diverse sample is needed to allow the generalisation of these findings to the general population.
This study has potential for mental healthcare policy. Visits to habitats with a high concentration of birdlife could become part of social prescribing schemes, playing a role in preventing mental health difficulties and complementing more traditional interventions. Paramount to all of this, will be the adoption of environmental and wildlife protection policies for the preservation and enhancement of a mosaic of habitats in rural and urban settings.
The study, ‘Smartphone-based ecological momentary assessment reveals mental health benefits of birdlife’, was published in Scientific Reports and is free to access via https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-022-20207-6