Solutions for Higher Education

Episode 21: Sound & Psychology


SUU Psychology professor Dr. Britt Mace joins this week's episode to discuss how sound and noise can affect the way people behave. His studies in the field of environmental psychology touches on how physical and social surroundings can influence the way we think, feel, and act.


Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hello again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I’m Steve Meredith, your host, and with me as always today is President Wyatt. Hi, Scott.

Scott Wyatt: Hello, Steve. It’s a great day.

Meredith: I’m excited for today’s podcast because, as most of our listeners know, I work regularly with music technology, and our guest today uses that same technology in a very, very different way. So I’m excited to hear about his research and what he does. Why don’t you introduce him?

Wyatt: Yeah, and sometimes we feel badly that we can’t show pictures, but today, we can. So...

Meredith: Sonic pictures.

Wyatt: Yeah. Our guest is Dr. Britt Mace, also the Interim Dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Welcome.

Britt Mace: Thank you. Thank you, President Wyatt. Thank you, Steve. It’s great to be here this afternoon, I’m looking forward to it. 

Wyatt: So this is just, I think, going to be a fun conversation.

Mace: I hope so.

Wyatt: And you are an environmental psychologist.

Mace: I am.

Wyatt: What does that mean?

Mace: It’s an obscure field that most have never heard of before, and basically, I’m the type of psychologist that doesn’t necessarily focus on people all the time. I focus on surroundings and how physical and social surroundings begin to influence the way that we think, feel and act.

Wyatt: And where do you spend most of your time?

Mace: Most of my time, believe it or not, I spend in a laboratory. Environmental psych is applied and field oriented, but many of us are trained as experimental psychologists, which means that we spend a great deal of time analyzing variables in a laboratory and trying to isolate those to try and figure out how they influence us. One of those, for example, is sound, and how sound and noise begin to influence the way that we think or behave.

Wyatt: Yeah. The question, “Where do you spend most of your time?” That’s a tough question, isn’t it? Because you teach, you research, and you’re out in the field and analyzing on campus what you’re collecting.

Mace: I do.

Wyatt: But how do you...so why don’t you talk to us about how you got into this? What was the motivation?

Mace: The motivation was back in the 1900s, as my kids like to remind me, back in the late 1990s [All laugh] I was out on a field project in Grand Canyon National Park. One of the lucky things that environmental psychologists get to do when we’re not in a laboratory is to be outdoors oftentimes, and I’ve been lucky enough to spend a great deal of time in national parks. I was down in Grand Canyon, we were actually working on an air pollution study looking at different levels of haze in the atmosphere and looking at if visitors could visually detect different levels of pollution. And many of us while we were down there noticed that there were sounds coming from over flights and realized that there wasn’t a whole lot of research out there looking at the impact of noise on recreationists, especially in national parks. So I started to do some research in that area. We collected some sound samples while we were down in Grand Canyon, specifically of helicopters—one of the issues at the time. The Park Service and the Federal Aviation Administration were working on regulations of where helicopters, for tourist purposes, should fly and at what elevation and how the loudness would impact visitors on the ground. And so that work led into a variety of different projects that tried to fine-tune that process to figure out specifically what are the psychological impacts, what are the potential safety issues, what are some of the impacts that humans have on other species as well, based on the sounds that we produce. But the initial impetus for getting into the work was haphazard. We were down looking at something else, and just being in that environment led to some creative ideas that have kept me busy for the last 25 years in the area, when I never thought that there would be that much work to do, and there’s still so much more.

Wyatt: So where is most of your work done now?

Mace: The last few years I’ve been out in the Grand Staircase National Monument. We’ve been collecting baseline acoustic data out in that area to validate some models that look at how quiet or how loud specific areas are, and what are the individual species and types of sound inputs that are prevalent in an area. And the Grand Staircase has been an interesting location because it’s one of those areas within Southern Utah that hasn’t been completely discovered yet, and so it was wonderful to have an opportunity to go out to a number of different areas that are somewhat visited and not visited at all.

Wyatt: Yeah, I often have people say to me, “I’m going to the Grand Staircase. Where do I start?” I think, “Oh, my goodness. How does one answer that question?” [Laughs]

Mace: It’s a vast, vast area, that’s for sure. And to give you an idea of that, we started looking at collecting data in 10 different locations and ended up collecting acoustic data in 17 different locations and feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface. We’ve discovered some amazing things out there, and that one project has taken off into five different directions, including not just figuring out what is out there, but looking to see how to communicate sound to visitors, how to provide interpretation to help visitors make a determination of the place that they might like to visit...and so we’ve combined some of these approaches together to produce kiosks as well as exhibits within the visitor’s center so that visitors can go and take a look at the different locations and also hear and listen to what Calf Creek Falls sounds like. What it would be like to hike on that trail? What the Drive Forks—the slot canyons—sound like. To try to just provide some interpretation about the meaning of sound, why we’re doing some of this work, and why it’s important.

Wyatt: So and you’re keeping...you’ve got a collection of these sounds that go over 25 years?

Mace: I do. It’s been amazing as the technology has improved and we’ve become better and better at storing sounds and providing archives. The amount of data and recordings that we are now able to collect is mind boggling.

Wyatt: So, this would be kind of like going to a library?

Mace: It would.

Wyatt: And checking out the sound for whatever location and time?

Mace: It’s funny you mention that. In fact, one of the side projects that I mentioned is doing exactly that—creating a sound library, a digitized sound library—that will be available. It will be posted up on the web, and anyone will have access to that for the Grand Staircase specifically, but then we hope to broaden it out. One of my research assistants, Cesar Coronel, has spent the last three years editing sounds, cleaning sounds up, looking for obscure sounds in our recordings and is producing quite an extensive sound library.

Wyatt: So, why don’t you show us something?

Mace: I will, I’d be happy to show you something.

Wyatt: Is that the right way to say it? “Show us something?” [All laugh]

Meredith: Yeah. Show our ears something.

Mace: You know, actually it’s funny, when we analyze this data, you’ve got to realize that at each location we go, we spend a month out there—our equipment does—so vicariously we’re there. We record the sound as well as the decibel level so we have an understanding of how loud and how quiet different areas are. And that creates an archive that you can then go in and compare at any other point in the future. And so the library is, in a sense, a library. It will always be there, and so you will know on what date, at what time, at what place it sounded like there. So I’ve got a few sounds that I’d like to share with you, and we do visualize sound. So when we analyze our data, we actually transform our sound into something that we can see, which enables us to go in and identify individual sounds. Each site that we record, we’re there for a month, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so we are upwards of 17,000 hours of recordings. We’ve barely begun to create the sound library, and we already have some amazing things. So, we are in Southern Utah, we are known for flash floods...here’s a flash flood coming down a canyon.

[Plays audio clip of flash flood coming down a canyon]

Wyatt: If you hadn’t have told me that was a flash flood, I would have assumed that was a rocket. A jet taking off.

Mace: It’s amazing, isn’t it?

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: It sounds like an airport sound.

Mace: Yeah. Well, if you want to hear a jet, I do have a jet. [All laugh] And one of the studies that we did a few years ago, we take some of the recordings that we collect out in the field, and then we will bring them back to the lab and then we can isolate the sounds and start to do some comparisons. The sounds of high-altitude jets are actually not nearly as negatively perceived as other forms of aircraft, such as propeller planes and helicopters, and so I’ll give you a little snippet of each of the three so you have a comparison. So here’s a high-altitude jet at about 35,000 feet.

[Plays audio clip of high-altitude jet]

Wyatt: That sounds familiar.

Mace: Here’s a propeller plane.

[Plays audio clip of propeller plane in background]

Mace: High-altitude jets you’ll hear about 25% to 30% of the time in Southern Utah in every one of the parks. Little bit different sound with the prop plane. And then lastly, this is the sound of a helicopter. This is a tourist plane out at the Wahweap Hoodoos that we happened to catch.

[Plays audio clip of helicopter]

Mace: So just the type of sound—the frequency—causes a different reaction. And so we’ve dabbled in some of that research as well and found some interesting things there. Another interesting clip that we have from out in the Grand Staircase, this is another common sound that you’ll hear just about everywhere.

[Plays audio clip of crickets chirping]

Wyatt: I recognize that. So what time of day would that have been?

Mace: This was nighttime, about 10:30 at night. And you know, what’s interesting about some of these clips...I’m a psychologist, I don’t know a whole lot about crickets, biologists do...that last clip has three different species of crickets, and so you can go in there and amplify and isolate those sounds and that’s exciting for a lot of other researchers as well because you discover things that you never knew were out there. Crickets have a chorus and they interact with their own species, as well as others I learned.

Wyatt: Wow. So I love to go hiking and camping out in those areas, and there’s just something really settling about hearing crickets at night.

Mace: There is.

Wyatt: It’s like, “I am outside.”

Mace: I am outside, yes. One of the future directions we’d like to go with some of this work is we’d like to take our recordings of pleasant sounds that are tranquil, that are restorative, and see if we can begin to use those for therapeutic purposes. A colleague of mine is a biological psychologist and she has been sharing with us how to measure brain waves, galvanic skin response, blood pressure and stress responses, and we’re finding that the sound that you hear makes a difference to how your body responds. So there’s a lot of truth to what you’re talking about, President.

Wyatt: And I remember, it’s been a few years ago, but we bought CDs that had nature sounds in them, and so you’d have these little orchestrations. Steve, I don’t know if you’ve…

Meredith: Oh yeah.

Wyatt:...Obviously you’ve seen a lot of them I’m sure.

Meredith: Sure.

Wyatt: But they have crickets in the background or frogs or ocean waves or something.

Meredith: Yeah, that was actually a big movement, as you mentioned, and in a previous century, there were lots of people that put out albums. Edgar Winter and the guys from Mannheim Steamroller, and there are a number of groups that recorded outside and tried to get the crickets or the animals to sort of be part of their recording. And sometimes they turned out to be amazing recordings that all of nature was in harmony and they were all in rhythm together, and there are actually some pretty interesting recordings. While we’re on that subject—so you’ve been talking about the process that you go through, and my friends in this business that are gear-heads would be mad at me if I didn’t ask, so what do you use? Do you use a field recorder from Filmwork? Or what type of equipment do you use?

Mace: We use a system that the National Parks Service over...well, I guess it was about 10 years ago, 15 years ago. And so it’s coming from an acoustic perspective, they use a decibel meter, it’s a Larson Davis decibel meter, it’s common in community noise studies, that is wired with a digital sound recorder connected to an external microphone covered with a windscreen and a bird spike to keep the birds off. And everything is wired together connected with rechargeable batteries, you can also use solar panels during different times of the year if you have enough sun, and the data is now collected on SD cards. Believe it or not, back in the day as you were mentioning, it was reel-to-reel tape…

Meredith: I remember.

Mace: And it was quite an effort to get equipment out there. So things have changed over the years, and I’ve been lucky enough to learn alongside some acousticians who taught me their craft. When we had working group that was brought together by the Parks Service and the Department of Transportation 10  years ago to to try to figure out a methodology for studying sound in national parks, as well as the response to sound in national parks, and so we’re proud that we came up with a method that is now used across the country. And it’s fascinating to see how the technology has made our job a lot easier. The weight sounds glorious, but you do have to carry this equipment in and, you know, it’s 50 pounds at least to carry this stuff in and sometimes we hike in to remote locations.

Meredith: Right.

Mace: And so there’s certainly some work involved, but in my opinion, it’s one of the best kinds of work that you could ever fall into.

Wyatt: So what’s one of the more interesting or novel or unique or whatever sounds that are surprising?

Mace: Well, here, I’ve got one for you. We had no idea what it was, and so I’ll let you listen and then respond.

[Plays audio clip of owls at night]

Wyatt: That’s a pretty good owl sound.

Mace: That’s a pretty good owl sound. Any guess on the screech?

Wyatt: I have no idea.

Mace: None of us had a clue either. We thought it was a screech owl, and a screech owl responding. A biologist had a chance to listen to that and said, “That’s amazing. What you guys have is amazing. That is a female owl, a female spotted owl, screeching and the male responding to her. So that has to be a nesting pair in an area that we never knew they existed in.”

Wyatt: Spotted owls.

Mace: Spotted owls.

Wyatt: In Southern Utah.

Mace: In Southern Utah.

Wyatt: [Laughs] I had no idea.

Mace: I have another common sound in Southern Utah.

[Plays audio clip of coyotes at night]

Mace: We have individual coyotes, and then they sing together oftentimes, and so you get some interesting combinations of coyote symphonies. Here’s one that we’re not really sure what this is…

[Plays audio clip]

Mace: That was a creature that visited our campsite one morning and we’re still debating exactly what that one is. [All laugh]

Wyatt: So what do you think it is?

Mace: I think it’s an animal in distress. My guess would be it’s probably an abandoned dog or a coydog perhaps that’s interbred. I’m not sure. The sound frequency does not fit coyote completely and it does not fit a dog completely, but it sounds as if it’s both.

Wyatt: Wow, that’s fun.

Mace: When we’re having a bad day, we listen to some things that make us feel better.

Wyatt: [Laughs]

Mace: Sometimes, you know, out in the Grand Staircase, there’s some great history. There’s an area out there that has a lot of significance to pioneers—the Hole-in-the-Rock Road and Dance Hall Rock is a natural amphitheater out there—and so sometimes you have impromptu performances from visitors.

[Plays audio clip of hiker singing]

Mace: Followed by a buzzing bee. [All laugh] And you know, every once in a while, people do find your equipment which always produces some interesting reactions, and so I’ll play one last clip here for you of a couple that found our station out in the Wahweap Hoodoos.

[Plays audio clip of hikers talking]

[All laugh]

Wyatt: [In reference to recording] If the tree falls down and no one is there to listen…

Meredith: That’s right.

Wyatt: If the hoodoo calls and there’s no one there to hear it? That’s awesome. If only you could find out who they were.

Mace: Yeah, one of my research assistants swears it’s somebody from MPR, so maybe we’ll get a call one day. [Laughs] He seems to recognize his voice, but it’s things like that that you get every so often that make you feel good about what you do.

Wyatt: So I’ve been to the Wahweap Hoodoos, but it’s obviously not my voice.

Mace: It’s not your voice.

Wyatt: And it’s obviously not your voice?

Meredith: No, it’s not my voice.

Wyatt: So have you ever had a sound that just really was baffling?

Mace: We do, and we have one from the same site, the Wahweap Hoodoos. Let me provide you a little bit of context here. To get to the Wahweap Hoodoos, it’s about a five mile hike one way, and this sound that we recorded is from 2:30 in the morning. You can hear how sensitive our microphones are from hearing that last clip, we can pick up visitors or hikers from a ways away, and in this clip, there is a whisper. It sounds like it’s faint, but it’s in the middle of a jet clip. You’ll hear a high-altitude jet overhead, but there’s also a whisper in here, and we don’t know what this is, and honestly, I don’t know if we want to. [All laugh]

[Plays audio clip]

Wyatt: I heard it.

Mace: You heard it?

Wyatt: There was a jet, and then there was some…

Meredith: It sounds like they said “blood.”

Mace: That’s exactly what it sounds like. My research assistant, Cesar, when he heard that, his face turned white.

Meredith: I bet.

Mace: Thought we had capture a ghost. No footsteps before or after. We scoured the recording looking for any other sign within that time period, and there’s nothing else there. So perhaps a puff of wind? Perhaps a ghost.

Meredith: Wow.

Wyatt: Well there’s nothing more popular than ghosts today. Every town that I visit, I can get a ghost tour. Not that I’ve done it, but I’ve noticed that there are ghost tours everywhere.

Meredith: Oh yeah.

Wyatt: We even have ghost tours at SUU.

Meredith: In the building where we work.

Wyatt: In the building where we work there are ghost stories. So we probably should have you put some recording instruments outside of Old Main.

Mace: I’d be happy to.

Wyatt: To see if you could catch Virginia.

Mace: See if we can catch Virginia.

Wyatt: [Laughs] Wailing some late night.

Mace: I’ve heard there are other buildings on campus that might also have visitors. [All laugh]

Meredith: Well, lest we scare all the prospective students away [All laugh], the name of our podcast is Solutions for Higher Education, so Britt, what does your work mean to the rest of us? How does it improve the world and improve the lives of individual people? Obviously you had mentioned possible commercial applications, things like going to sleep to the sound of crickets or whatever it was, but how do you see the work that you do making the world a better place?

Mace: I think that educating and trying to enlighten people about the importance of sound is really the goal of the work. That it’s something that we take for granted, that it has impacts that we don’t necessarily recognize, that we have a tendency to think that we can block it out. And yet we live in a noisy world, and we have areas where we’re lucky enough—especially in our region, our location—to escape some of the stresses that you experience in cities. When you ask visitors to public areas why are they there, “experience the scenery, the natural beauty” is always number one, and “experience the quiet and the sounds of nature” is always number two. And so if people are seeking respite, or they’re looking for restoration, and they want to go to these places, I think it’s valuable to know what it sounds like and to have people reflect on the place they live and what that place sounds like and to realize that we are immersed in noise. That sound is oftentimes ubiquitous. It surrounds us and it does impact us, both physiologically and psychologically. I think some of the greatest benefits of doing this work is being able to provide internships for students. To get them outdoors to see how we do the work both in the laboratory, but also in the field. How we work with professionals in a variety of different organizations, different backgrounds. And I think it really gives them a better picture of what it is like to take on issues, how to scientifically begin to study them, and how to make better decisions. How to become a better citizen of the world around you, and to think about there’s a wealth of opportunity out there in the world, there’s a lot of stuff still to be discovered. And I’ve been lucky enough to wander on this journey for 25 years and I’ve learned a lot from everyone I’ve interacted with, but especially from the students who have helped out over the years along the way.

Wyatt: In some ways, it seems like you’re creating oral histories. Instead of oral histories of peoples experiences, an oral history of the world that’s around the people who are having experiences.

Mace: That’s right, yes. The archives are important. Places change. You know, we talk about...you go back to the town where you grew up and it’s different and part of that is the sound is different, that the soundscape is different. It feels different, it’s not the same. And to have an archive of what a place was like at a given point in time is phenomenal. It’s amazing to be able to do that and to be able to go back and listen and to do some comparisons. I think oftentimes about some of our other areas around here, and the special places that we all have and what happens when a place becomes discovered. What happens when a place goes from a few hundred thousand visitors a year to five million visitors a year? How does that place change for the good and for the bad? And having an archive there of, “This is what this place was like” is one of the greatest contributions as well. It will also become open-access data so that anyone can have a crack at it. And if you’re a person who is an entomologist and studies crickets, there’s a wealth of data there that others will discover as well. [All laugh]

Meredith: I was thinking of putting it into music. I think it’s awesome.

Wyatt: You do crickets. You’ve got a lot of cricket noises probably.

Mace: We’ve got a lot of cricket noises. You know, one other thing that I wanted to mention too before we wrap up here is one of the other side projects that we found haphazardly was we have some of the quietest locations in Southern Utah of any place that’s been recorded in the lower 48 states. In fact, it’s so quiet that our microphones were floored. We were hitting the floor, we could no longer record at decibels lower than our equipment allowed. We recently purchased a microphone that allows us to get down to lower decibel levels and several of the locations that we’ve monitored are going to be published as the quietest areas in the lower 48 states. The record previously was Haleakala on top of Maui at 10 decibels, the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado has a recording of 8.7 and our data is showing decibel ranges in the 5.5 to 7 range.

Meredith: Wow. That’s unhearable.

Mace: It’s so quiet, you hear yourself. That’s what you hear. You hear your own physiology and that can be a bit disconcerting. It’s too quiet. [All laugh]

Meredith: Yeah, it’s like the sound is getting sucked out of your ears. 

Wyatt: It’s like it’s too dark. We have this phrase in our family called, “pitch quiet.”

Mace: Pitch quiet.

Wyatt: It’s pitch dark. It’s so quiet, it’s like all the lights are out. Well you talked about the restorative value of sounds, and it’s certainly true for me. I can see things or hear things or feel things, smell certain things that immediately have an impact on my mood.

Mace: Absolutely.

Wyatt: That calm or get me into that fight or flight sort of sense. [Laughs]

Mace: And you know, that’s kind of the fun part of this, is we look at some of the different sounds that we produce, we look at some of the sounds that the natural world produces at the same decibel levels, and you get a completely different response. Sometimes it’s really the heart of psychology—the difference between sound and noise. One person’s music is another person’s racket.

Wyatt: If I wanted access to some of these sounds, or somebody listening to this podcast, where would they go?

Mace: If they’re out in the Escalante area, in the Grand Staircase, there are new exhibits in the Visitor’s Center in town there that details some of the work that we’ve done, as well as some of the sounds that you can hear in the different locations. We are in the process of analyzing the rest of our data and finishing up our sound library and within a few months, the sound library will be on the Grand Staircase website and will be available to all. And if anyone has any questions or would like some more information or to hear some of the sounds that we have, I’d be happy to share that information with them as well, and they can contact me at SUU. My email address is mace@suu.edu.

Meredith: You’ve been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University. Our in-studio guest today is Dr. Britt Mace, who is an environmental psychologist and renowned expert on the sounds of nature. Thanks for listening, we’ll be back again soon. Bye bye.