Beyond Landscape’s Visible Realm: Recorded sound, nature and wellbeing

Victoria Bates*, Clare Hickman, Helen Manchester, Jonathan Prior, Stephanie Singer

*Corresponding author for this work

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This article draws on an AHRC/EPSRC funded project called ‘A Sense of Place: Exploring nature and wellbeing through the non-visual senses’. The project used sound and smell technologies, as well as material textures and touch, to ask: what does ‘wellbeing’ mean for people in relation to the non-visual aspects of nature, and how might technology play a role in promoting it (if at all)? This article takes recorded sound as a case study. It argues that recorded soundscapes should be understood on their own terms rather than as ‘less than’ or a simulation of natural environments. They have specific value in creating space for imagination, particularly when delivered with care and as part of the co-creation of sensory experience. Overall, the article argues that the value of emerging immersive technologies is not to simulate nature better. An ‘immersive experience’ is richest when it allows for – and reveals – the nuances and complexities of individual responses to natural environments.

The perceived connection between ‘being in nature’ and wellbeing has a long social and cultural history. Capaldi et al. argue that ‘evidence suggests that connecting with nature is one path to flourishing in life’ and that spending time in nature is therefore a ‘potential wellbeing intervention’ (2015, p. 1). Many studies, as Hartig et al. note, provide evidence to support a general idea that nature is ‘good for health’ but ‘we have more to learn about for whom, when, how, and in which contexts it offers benefits’ (2014, p. 222). The links between nature, health and wellbeing also often rest on a number of assumptions, many of which would benefit from more critical interrogation. One such common assumption is that the value of nature is grounded in the ability to see it. Despite some growing interest in multi-sensory approaches, discussed further below, the value of nature is still most commonly examined through the visual signifiers of ‘green’ and ‘blue’ space such as aquatic environments, parks and gardens (Alcock et al., 2015; Finlay et al., 2015; Lee and Maheswaran, 2011; Pitt, 2018; van den Berg et al., 2015; Ward Thompson et al., 2016; Wood et al., 2017). The beneficial effects of nature for wellbeing are also often considered to be greatest in situ (for example Carrus et al., 2015; Doherty et al., 2014). Literature on healing environments does engage with the potential value of photographic or artistic representations of ‘green’ and ‘blue’ space, but typically does so in relation to people with limited access to ‘real’ nature (Bates, 2018).

This article draws on an AHRC/EPSRC funded project called ‘A Sense of Place: Exploring nature and wellbeing through the non-visual senses’ in order to examine such assumptions about nature and wellbeing. It does in two ways: firstly, the article turns away from the visual components of landscape towards the sonic; secondly, it focuses on the implications of recorded sound (rather than in situ listening) for the perception of wellbeing. We start with a deliberately broad and inclusive definition of ‘nature’ and ‘wellbeing’, but also seek to acknowledge and problematise the often uncritically broad use of these terms. As Lovell states, wellbeing is a complex term that is conceptualised in many different ways and one that is often reliant on assessments made by the individual, sometimes in conjunction with more universal measures (2018, p. 5). Therefore, it is important to consider the role of diversity in how individuals perceive and find meaning in their relationship to natural environments, whether simulated, recorded, or real.

The article starts from the premise that recorded sound offers something different from engagement with nature in situ, rather than just a pale imitation thereof. It asks what recording technologies might offer, not only to people with limited access to nature but as a specific type of encounter with the ‘natural’ that has its own value. We also consider modes of delivery, arguing that people engage more with audio technologies when recorded soundscapes are interactive and delivered with care.2 Overall, this article is not interested in identifying one-size-fits-all therapeutic soundscapes. Instead, it considers how sound functions. Instead of asking which soundscapes are ‘good for you’ we are interested in exploring what recorded soundscapes do for different people. Sounds function in very different ways depending on individual bodies, relationships, memories and cultures. Recorded soundscapes have particular implications for imagination and memory. We argue that recorded sound should not be dismissed as inauthentic or secondary to ‘real’ experiences of nature, but rather must be understood as fundamentally different. Recorded sound has its own implications for wellbeing, which come from the stimulation of imagination rather any realistic simulation of the experience of being outdoors. Recorded sounds offer potential for control, individualisation, imagination and change, or removal of undesirable aspects of a recorded soundscape.

This work is in line with an emerging, more critical approach to ‘nature’ in scholarship. In particular, it aligns with recent work that has sought to de-homogenise nature, for example showing the range of aesthetic properties of different birdsong (Ratcliffe et al., 2018), or the differential aesthetic qualities of the sounds of landscape beyond the constraints of ‘pleasing’ or ‘displeasing’ sound (Prior, 2017). It also builds on work that explores ‘nature’ as a multi-sensory experience (Franco et al., 2017). In particular, it links to a growing body of scholarship interested in the effects of the non-visual aspects of nature on health and wellbeing; examples include examining the olfactory qualities of ‘therapeutic landscapes’ (Gorman, 2017), the effects of natural sounds on stress levels (Alvarsson et al., 2010), and going ‘beyond green space’ to explore biodiversity or ecological connections (Wheeler et al., 2015). There is also a growing body of work on the embodied nature of connection that includes mobility through space and other less static relationships with the natural world (Gatrell, 2013; Bell, 2019). We seek here to provide data to build on and develop this emerging scholarship, showing additionally the particular role of non-visual senses and the control offered by recorded sound in stimulating emotion, imagination and memory. We also emphasise the importance of delivering such technologies with care.
Original languageEnglish
Article number102271
Number of pages7
JournalHealth and Place
Early online date27 Dec 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2020

Structured keywords

  • Centre for Humanities Health and Science

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