The Future of Sonic Tree Medicine – Rebecca Miller

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By: Rebecca Miller

The Future of Sonic Tree Medicine

OBJECTIVE

About 1 in 3 adults sleep less than 7 hours per night, which can increase the risk of both mental and physical health conditions as well as the likelihood of accidents, injuries, and even possible death.1 For the sake of daily functionality, humans need adequate levels of sleep, because “sleep services all aspects of our body in one way or another: molecular, energy balance, as well as intellectual function, alertness and mood.”2 As explained by Dr Merrill Mitler, a sleep expert and neuroscientist at National Institutes of Health. “Loss of sleep impairs your higher levels of reasoning, problem solving and attention to detail”.3 Getting an adequate amount of good quality sleep can lead to benefits such as creative problem solving, improved performance, enhanced learning, and a better mood. But it’s a privilege reserved only for those who are not homeless.

In Grants Pass, Oregon, in April 2024, the Supreme Court leaned heavily in favour of passing local ordinances to ban sleeping and camping by homeless people in public spaces. In defence of not criminalizing homeless people, Justice Elena Kagan argues that “Sleeping is a biological necessity. It’s sort of like breathing. I mean, you could say breathing is conduct, too. But presumably, you would not think that it’s OK to criminalize breathing in public, and for a homeless person who has no place to go, sleeping in public is kind of like breathing in public.”4 This leads to the question, is the Supreme Court criminalising the dreams of homeless people? Or even depriving homeless people of their human right to dream?

Scientists and artists throughout history have reported that their ingenious intuitions came to them while they slept. Among the most notable was Mary Shelly, who said the concept for her Gothic novel Frankenstein appeared to her in a dream. There is anecdotal evidence that Hypnagogia or N1, the earliest stage of sleep, is an incubator for creative ideas. Anne Trafton, life sciences writer at the MIT News office, recounts, “Thomas Edison often took advantage of this state. When struggling with a thorny problem, he would sit down for a nap while holding a metal ball in his hand. Just as he fell asleep, the ball would fall out of his hand and wake him up, and when he woke, he often had a new solution in mind.”5

METHODS

One of my cherished memories from childhood in California was going to Girl Scout camp in the summer. My favourite was Hidden Falls established in 1957, in the Redwood Forest of Soquel in the Santa Cruz mountains. Hidden Falls is a 90-acre gem populated by giant California Redwoods. This is also the site of the recent CZU Lightning Complex fires that burned through the Big Basin Redwoods State Park. In August 2020, a series of lightning strikes from a major thunderstorm struck Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties, initiating one of the most destructive wildfires in California’s history. The fire covered over 86,000 acres of land, homes and forest, including 97% of the state park which is home to ancient coastal redwoods ranging in age from 1,000-2,500 years old.6 Yet despite this recent history of destruction, these trees have long captivated those who wander amongst their ancient bodies. “The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always… From them comes silence and awe. It’s not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time.”7

On one memorable occasion, my oldest sister Sile and her best friend went to camp with me. In the evening we rolled out our sleeping bags under the majestic giants and slept underneath their graceful canopies. There was one night I was woken up in my sleep by some older campers who were disguised as Fairies. They said they were taking me to a Fairy party, and took me to a clearing in the woods where there were a few of the other campers. The Fairies danced and laughed and encouraged me to join in. They gave me a cupcake, and it tasted delicious. The Fairies sprinkled glitter over me and the other guests at the party, and when the party ended they led us back to our sleeping bags. I slept happily and soundly that night. In the morning I tried to find the other campers that were there with me. I asked my sister if it was her who took me to the Fairy party, and she denied it. None of the other campers besides the ones at the party knew anything about it either. I still had glitter in my hair for the rest of the day. I wondered about the night for a very long time, and occasionally I would pester my sister about her involvement in that night. She would consistently insist that she knew nothing.

Since that event, I have drawn a connection between trees and sleep. This was the initial inspiration to develop an experimental sleep hygiene routine to hack sleeplessness, improve sleep and foster creativity. This project is a prototype for sonic tree sleep medicine and could contribute to the development of an evidence base for nature prescriptions as outlined in Koselka et al.8

I propose that the interior sounds of trees could help with sleep; for example, listening to a recording of the interior sounds of trees before bedtime is part of a good sleep hygiene routine. The interior sounds of trees are in a different category from green noise,9 a type of noise designed to mimic the sounds of the natural world such as a bubbling stream, an ocean breeze, or the rustling of leaves, synthesized by focusing on midrange sounds. Although green noise may be popular, the green noise produced for sleep is not naturally occurring. Sleep product expert Ben Trapskin says, “Some green noise products may contain artificial or synthesized sounds, which can be less effective than natural sounds. It’s important to choose a product that uses high quality, natural sounds for the best potential sleep benefits.”10 Sara Silverman, a holistic sleep doctor and behavioural sleep medicine specialist, says green noise may help with sleep onset: “Overall, there’s limited data on green noise and sleep, but there is some evidence that it may potentially aid with improving sleep onset rather than sleep maintenance.”11

For this sleep experiment systems hack on the nervous system, I sought out the highest quality recordings of the interior sounds of trees. Using the interior sounds of trees is important for this study and distinguishes it from the small evidence base of green noise that focuses on the external noises of nature. Although there are many recordings such as birds, water sources, and wind blowing through trees, there are not any investigations into the impact of the interior sounds of trees on sleep.

A study at UNSW Sydney indicates there is a connection between the proximity to green spaces and how much sleep people get.12 Their research article Does Sleep Grow on Trees? is a longitudinal study to investigate the potential prevention of insufficient sleep with different types of urban green space. Professor Thomas Astell-Burt hypothesised that “parks, woodlands and other nearby green spaces might actually help us to nod off. Green space might counter impacts of noise and air pollution, and cool local heat islands, all of which can make sleep difficult.”13 The study found lower odds of developing insufficient sleep in areas where 30% or more of land cover within 1.6km had tree canopy. This research supports my speculation that digital recordings of the interior sounds of trees could provide the benefits that sleeping under a tree canopy could provide.

I procured six minutes of inner tree recordings from Jez Riley French, the field recording artist for this experiment. Made using hand-built contact microphones by French and his daughter Phoebe Riley Law,14 one recording was from a Corsican Pine tree in Broxa Forest in North Yorkshire and the other was from a Spruce tree in the Forest of Dean. I was not able to access a redwood tree for the recording as I now live in the UK, but I was able to find the next best thing. Because my sleep quality is generally poor, I performed this preliminary sleep experiment on myself for two weeks. Before bedtime, I rolled out my yoga mat, laid down on it in Savasana or Corpse pose and listened to the recording with headphones on repeat for 15-20 minutes with the lights dimmed. I heard the sap quietly moving up through the trunk, the water taken up by the roots and pulled through tube-like straws up to the leaves. To track my sleep quality, I kept a sleep journal to record my dreams, reactions and thoughts that materialised during the listening sessions. I asked myself: How did I sleep last night? What was my sleep like? I allowed for spontaneous impressions of the tree recordings and their impact on my sleep experience to be included.

Tree recording procured by Jez Riley French and Phoebe Riley Law
DATA

Each morning after waking, I wrote for 10 minutes in my sleep journal. I wrote about the quality of my sleep, my dreams and how I felt. For this study, I have extracted the key elements relating to falling asleep and the quality of my sleep.

Sleep Journal Extracts

9/1/2024 – The sounds were more like rhythms. It felt relaxing to listen through the speakers on my laptop. It would be interesting to listen through headphones. The two recordings are about 15 min together.

10/1/2024 – I replayed the sounds of the interiors of trees. I allowed my thoughts to travel sonically inside the trees. Then I was woken up at 4:00 am by the frightening sound of foxes mating. It lasted a long time, and I could not go back to sleep so I folded laundry.

11/1/2024 – Each time I listen to the recordings I hear new things. I feel like I am travelling and drifting along the sounds of the interiors of the trees. I drifted off lightly to sleep.

12/1/2024 – I listened to the recordings, and I slept very deeply. I feel as though I just shut off. I did not remember my dreams.

13/1/2024 – When I listen to the recording, I start to recognize sections and parts that stand out such as in any time-based media. I lay down on my yoga mat in Savasana pose and listen. By the end, I have drifted off into a light sleep. I am prepared to go to bed.

14/1/24 I listened to the sounds of the water being sucked up the tree through the roots. I dropped off to sleep quickly. I cannot remember any of my dreams or the feelings of my dreams.

15/1/24 – I did not listen tonight, and I had a terrible night’s sleep.

16/1/24 – I slept average nothing remarkable. I am still not remembering my dreams. I woke up a couple of times. What I am finding is when I listen to the recordings for 15 min, and I lay down on the floor on my back in Savasana pose with the external speakers streaming from my computer, I drift off into a light sleep. This makes it easier for me to fall asleep when I am in bed.

16/1/24 – I listened to the recordings. I am now familiar with the sounds. I had a bad night’s sleep. I missed my alarm and had to throw on my clothes and run out the door with my kids.

17/1/24 – I listened again for 15 min before bed. I had another difficult night’s sleep.

18/1/24 – I decided to use my watercolour paint in green and paint lines of different opacity on watercolour paper. I did this while listening to the recording. I think I will make a relaxing and meditative video with these ideas. I fell asleep swiftly. I dreamt about colours and the feeling of trees. 

19/1/24 – I did not remember my dreams. I painted concentric circles while I listened to the recordings. The circles remind me of the cross-section of a tree. What it looks like when you see the top of a tree stump. I have been researching the properties of Corsican pine. And soon I will research Fir trees. I bought some pine needle essential oil. I burned some in a diffuser. This helps to create a multi-sensory experience.

20/1/24 – When I was listening to the recording in the dark with headphones on and pine oil burning, I felt like I was taken deeper into myself. The recordings feel like an interior space, cave-like. Listening to the recordings is a calm restful preparation for sleep. This is a sleep exploration. It could be helpful to compare the tree recordings with a recording of the wind rustling through the leaves of a tree. My dreams were more like feelings. I woke up with more resolved feelings about directions I wanted to go in. I feel guided towards certain directions. Otherwise, I have not had any visual dreams. I woke up with no recollection, everything goes black, I unplug the screen.21/1/24 – Last night I had a full cinematic dream in parts, part 1, 2 and 3. It felt like lucid dreaming. When I listened to the tree sounds it felt like more intimate sounds of trees flowed through. It could be interesting to recreate or isolate the individual sounds I am hearing. How is the sound directly from the interior of trees different from any other sound from nature? The direct sound from the tree not a sound that sounds like leaves rustling. Not synthesized.

RESULTS

Before I began this study, I felt that I was not getting enough sleep. I would sometimes have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep without waking up several times in the night. When I listened to the inner sounds of trees before bed, ten out of fourteen nights of sleep were positively impacted by the experiment. I fell asleep more easily and slept deeper and longer. I only experienced poor-quality sleep four out of fourteen nights. A spontaneous creative impulse to paint emerged for two out of fourteen nights. I picked up the most immediate materials I had near me, which were watercolour paint and paper. I simply and loosely painted an image of circles and trees. I added a woman reclining on her back. It felt like automatism to me, “bodily movements that are not consciously controlled like breathing or sleepwalking.”15

Watercolour inspired from sonic tree experiment by Rebecca Miller

It is possible that listening to the recording of the trees in combination with lying in the Savasana pose could have a positive impact on falling asleep and staying asleep through the night. However, listening to the sound of the trees was important in helping me focus and through it I felt more connected to nature and the earth.

CONCLUSION

It is evident that listening to trees could contribute to a good sleep hygiene routine. As a hack for sleeplessness, it has been effective in relaxing my nervous system, which has helped me with the quality of my sleep. By intuitively exploring alternative sonic tree sleep medicine I was able to design a unique sleep hygiene routine which produced positive effects. 

Research implications suggest that there could be situations when listening to sonic tree medicine digitally in areas where there is no green space or tree canopy could assist with better sleep quality. Digital technology, which is so often seen as the opposite of nature, can be used to bring us closer to nature by allowing us to experience sounds of nature that we wouldn’t ordinarily be able to hear.
Creativity was a surprising affordance in this study. I speculate listening to a variety of the interior sounds of different trees could lead to a range of unexpected creative outcomes. The same study could be done for releasing creativity or assisting with creative blocks. There are ways that technology can harness the power of nature to solve human problems that are currently being researched. Over the past five years, the US Defence Department has spent large amounts of money to study the white-crowned sparrow, “to discover ways to enable people to go without sleep and to function productively and efficiently,”16 looking for a way to use the biology of the white-crowned sparrow to engineer a way to create a sleepless soldier. In contrast to the sleepless soldier outcome, sonic tree medicine is a viable way to collaborate with nature to promote health, well-being and creativity through better sleep for humans and hopefully a counteragent for the sleepless soldier.

BIO

Rebecca E. Miller – multimedia artist, arts-based researcher, and educator. I studied fine art at the San Francisco Art Institute as an undergraduate and completed my PhD in Art and Computational Technology in the computing department at Goldsmiths University of London in 2020. The Arts in Health movement and participatory arts-based research influence my work. My research explores the intersection of digital and analogue processes. I use different types of digital media, analogue media, and traditional art materials to express and produce the concepts that I am working with. I investigate my subject matter in experimental and playful ways. 

REFERENCES

  1. Ashley Valentine, “44 Surprising Sleep Statistics That Will Remind You Why Sleep Essential”, CNET, February 7, 2024. np
    https://www.cnet.com/health/sleep/44-sleep-statistics-you-probably-didnt-know-that-will-surprise-you/ ↩︎
  2. Vicky Contie, Alan Defibaugh (Illustrations), Dana Steinberg, Harrison Wein,
     “The Benefits of Slumber Why You Need a Good Night’s Sleep.” NIH (National Institutes of Health) News in Health, April 2013. pg1
      https://newsinhealth.nih.gov/sites/nihNIH/files/2013/April/NIHNiHApr2013.pdf ↩︎
  3. Ibid np ↩︎
  4. Abbie VanSickle, “Supreme Court Seems Poised to Uphold Local Bans on Homeless Encampments.” The New York Times, April 23, 2024. https://www.nytimes.com/2024/04/22/us/supreme-court-homeless-case-oregon.html?smid=url-share ↩︎
  5. Anne Trafton, “That Moment When You’re Nodding Off is a Sweet Spot for Creativity.” MIT news, May 15, 2023. np
    https://news.mit.edu/2023/sleep-sweet-spot-dreams-creativity-0515  ↩︎
  6. Christopher Potter, “Impacts of the CZU Lightning Complex Fire of August 2020 on the forests of Big Basin Redwoods State Park”, California Fish and Wildlife Scientific Journal, 12 April 2023, http://www.doi.org/10.51492/cfwj.109.1. ↩︎
  7. ”Beyond Your Wildest Dreams: Redwoods.” Santa Cruz County.org, May 1, 2024.np
    https://www.santacruz.org/blog/beyond-your-wildest-dreams-redwoods/ ↩︎
  8. Elizabeth Koselka, Lucy Weidner, Arsniy Minasov, Mark G. Berman, William R. Leonard, Marianne Santoso, Junia N. de Brito, Zachary Clark Pope, Mark Pereira, Theresa H. Horton, “Walking Green: Developing an Evidence Base for Nature Prescriptions”
    International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, November 2019 np
    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/337092325_Walking_Green_Developing_an_Evidence_Base_for_Nature_Prescriptions  ↩︎
  9. Susan Writes “What is Green Noise.” Medium May 1, 2024. https://medium.com/the-daily-cuppa/what-is-green-noise-20574ff81644 ↩︎
  10. Ben Trapskin, “The Soothing Sounds of Green Noise: How it Can Help You Sleep Better” Yawnder, January 17, 2024. np
    https://yawnder.com/the-soothing-sounds-of-green-noise-how-it-can-help-you-sleep-better ↩︎
  11. Casey Clark, “Is ‘Green Noise’ The Magical Solution to Better Sleep?”
     Huffington Post, April 15, 2023. https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/is-green-noise-the-magical-solution-to-better-sleep_uk_643967afe4b0a7592625e596 ↩︎
  12. Thomas Astell-Burt, Xiaoqi Feng, “Does sleep grow on trees? A longitudinal study to investigate potential prevention of insufficient sleep with different types of urban space.” SSM – Population Health Volume 10, April 2020. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352827319301703 ↩︎
  13. Thomas Astell-Burt, Xiaoqi Feng, “More green, more ‘zzzzz’? Trees may help us sleep.” UNSW Sydney Newsroom, March 16, 2020.np
    https://www.unsw.edu.au/newsroom/news/2020/03/more-green–more-zzzzz–trees-may-help-us-sleep ↩︎
  14. Jez Riley French “C-Series Pro + Contact Microphones.” September 24, 2023. np
    https://jezrileyfrench.co.uk/ ↩︎
  15. Automatism, “Art Term.” Tate, May 1, 2024. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/a/automatism ↩︎
  16. Jonathan Crary, “24/7 late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep.” Verso, 2013, 10. ↩︎

🪩 back to the ball 🪩