As someone who lives in Guatemala, there's never a shortage of verdant views or chill nature sounds to jumpstart my day. Staring up at majestic volcanoes and listening to birds chirping has done wonders for my normally anxiety-driven mind. And research backs me up on this: The sounds of birds singing can actually stimulate the brain's emotional centers, giving us those warm fuzzies along with added benefits of alertness and concentration. It's also been shown that people who live in neighborhoods with more creatures, shrubs and trees are actually less likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and stress.
All of this sounds idyllic for those of us with access to the outdoors, but what if you live in a large concrete-laden city or sit in a windowless cubicle all day? "The science shows that there are benefits you can derive from nature-infused technology," says Florence Williams, a science journalist and author of The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative.
So I decided to try some apps. As you'll read below, some of them were pretty effective, but as someone who gets the scientific benefits of seeing actual leaves on a daily basis, I highly recommend supplementing them with some actual interaction with living things outside of your FaceTime contacts.
For Realer-Than-Real Nature Sounds
Naturespace might actually sound more like nature than nature itself. The app recreates thunderstorms, oceans, fields, streams and other wildlife; each track lasts more than 12 minutes. You practically feel the rain on your shoulders—so much so that it can actually get overwhelming in moments. I also found the limited selection of six free tracks kind of stingy considering the amount of options offered by other apps. Side note: As a writer who spends an embarrassingly large amount of time indoors, I was impressed by how immersive this particular app was—the sound quality is so stellar that you actually feel like you're outside.
For Focus and Concentration
If you can get past the cartoonish icons, Noisli (the only one that's not free, but $1.99 isn't terrible) is a good option for when you need to get shit done. Though there's a lack of nature-themed visuals, it's especially effective at drowning out annoying background noise with relaxing waves and crackling fire. It lets you adjust and mix up different sounds to create your perfect soundscape—giving you the option of listening offline for when you're commuting to work. Since beginning to write this, I've used it on several other deadlines, and have been pleasantly surprised by my productivity. The downside: The sound effects are a smidge artificial-seeming.
Calm's user-friendly design and stunning visuals are like a trip to a good masseuse, minus the Enya. The app has it all: meditation and breathing exercises with animated scenes of actual raindrops falling on trees. The "breath" feature shows a sphere that expands and retracts with text that reads " deep breath in / deep breath out," which I have to say, is hella relaxing. The app provides a daily reminder for you to make chilling out a priority, as well as a calendar feature to help keep track of meditation sessions. Which honestly started feeling like a judgy friend after awhile.
And as much as I wanted to love the app's "sleep stories," which are guided voices meant to lull you into dreamland, they had the opposite effect, making me more anxious wanting to know where the story was going (spoiler alert: nowhere).
To Get Some Sleep
It's a well-known fact that living near water can be good for your mind, and after reading all the hype about Rain Rain, I'll admit to being disappointed by the lack of features when I first opened it on my phone. The app doesn't pretend to be something it's not—what you see is what you get here, however, what it lacks in options it makes up for in seamless audio once you start listening to rain on a window, gentle stream, or ocean pier. Compared to the others, I used this app mostly at bedtime because it was easier to click on an ambiance without getting distracted by other features, and it has a timer. The design is simple yet potent, giving you the option of 26 high-quality sounds to put you down for the night. Additional sound packagess will run you anywhere from $0.99 to $2.99, but honestly: How many more rain options does a person really need?
For Sleep and Mindfulness
Relax Melodies looks like it was designed for a younger audience, but has a strange appeal for adults as well. There's something inherently relaxing about watching icons gently sway on a screen. Here you can mix and match sounds, listen to guided meditations, and "relaxation tips," with articles titled Negative Emotion is Tiring (no shit). You also have the option of using brainwave sounds—binaural beats and isochronic tones—to reach new states of sleep. However, because the app feels more like a video game, I found the features more distracting than useful for winding down at night.
Of course, even the best nature-based technology isn't a substitute for the real thing.
"I'm a big proponent of actually going outside to take a break, or going for a short walk in the city park," says Williams. "The more nature immersion the better, because we seem to get all of the benefits when we can engage all of the senses."
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