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Safe and sound: How biophilia can combat fear in the built environment

A bird sitting on a branch

In recent years, the world’s media been awash with Covid-19 coverage. So it’s not surprising that, as well as the obvious health and economic impacts, the pandemic is having a profound effect on our psychology: over a third of Americans report that coronavirus is seriously impacting on mental health. At a time when wellbeing has never been more important, it’s also becoming increasingly hard to preserve our mental health.

For many people, this fear is an obstacle to returning to the workplace. After multiple lockdowns around the world, the built environment, however safe, might now still be viewed as a threat, be it a healthcare facility, workspace, hotel, restaurant, shop, or gym.

While your building’s restart plan will no doubt address Covid-19 from a hygiene perspective, we also have an obligation to address the mental health challenges that users face in returning. Diligent cleaning is invisible and so spaces must also be made to feel safe and reassuring.

Sound is often forgotten about when it comes to wellness, yet it plays a huge role in how we feel and behave – from our fleeting emotions to our long-term physical and mental health. Science shows that we can use biophilic soundscapes to help us feel at ease indoors.


In one of the most robust studies about sound and its influence on the perceived safety of a space, researchers tested the impact of birdsong in laboratory and real-life scenarios. They found that playing birdsong in a space increased people’s feelings of safety by 25% compared to silence.

There are a number of possible explanations for this. Firstly, birdsong shares many characteristics with the human language and thus might infer a reassuring social presence.

Secondly, we’ve likely learned over millions of years that when the birds are gently singing we’re safe. When the birds suddenly stop singing or switch to alert sounds, we instinctively feel uneasy. Other animals listen to birds in a similar way too: squirrels, for instance, pay attention to birdsong and adapt their behaviour as a result of the sound.

In addition to creating safer spaces, listening to birdsong can have a multitude of other relevant benefits, like encouraging feelings of restoration, negating stress, and cueing our bodies’ circadian rhythms.


On a simple level, when our brains react to sound they interpret them as either threats or non-threats. Loud, sudden sounds can automatically trigger our bodies’ fight-flight response and cause psychological stress. In our hunter-gatherer days, this would have helped us respond to life-threatening danger. In the modern world, it causes us to become stressed by harmless abrupt sounds like ringing telephones and slamming doors.

The sound of a babbling brook is not only a soothing sound but it can also be used to negate threatening noises. It’s a scientifically verified alternative to traditional sound masking that’s subjectively preferred by listeners, and so can be used to create less distracting, stressful environments.

Water also has deep connotations with cleanliness, hygiene, and freshness, and could be used to communicate these concepts in a space. (Perhaps that’s the reason that the sound of running water can cleanse our minds too: it helps us stay psychologically refreshed for longer – even more so than silence.)

These specific pieces of research are part of a huge body of evidence about the wellbeing benefits of biophilic sound. It’s never been more important to promote physical and mental wellbeing in the built environment, and biophilic soundscapes can make a measurable difference in a space.

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