Call me weird if you’d like, but I find it very hard to fall asleep if it’s completely silent. When I was little, my mom tells stories about how I would refuse to settle down and fall asleep unless the radio in my room was turned on at low volume to the local oldies station. When I went away to college and started experiencing dorm life, I quickly realized I was going to need something more powerful (and roommate-friendly) to drown out the late night N64 Super Smash Bros tournaments, impromptu dance parties and the whole host of other shenanigans that come as a result of putting 40 guys together on the same floor. I decided to invest in a white noise machine, and it has been a part of my nightly routine ever since.
Up until this point, I’ve been perfectly content with simply knowing that my white noise machine succeeds in masking external noises like house creaks or the birds that have made a home in my crawl space because my landlord keeps ignoring my calls. Recently, however, I began to wonder about the science behind the invention. Is it actually working on a scientific level to help me sleep, or am I just so used to it at this point that I’ve fallen victim to a sort of placebo effect? Does this product do more than just drown out other noises? Inspired in part by other Sleep Geek articles and the graduate school neuromarketing class I’m taking this semester, I decided to dig deeper in an attempt to find answers to these questions.
It turns out that white noise machines do, in fact, affect sleep on a scientific level. In a New York Times article from 2011, Tom Bergman, the marketing director at the Ear Plug Superstore, says white noise works because it raises your threshold of hearing. Bergman explains that your ears get less acute as the level of ambient sound rises, which is why all of a sudden that faucet that’s been dripping all day suddenly sounds like Niagara Falls in the middle of the night. On a deeper level, one neurologist suggests that white noise works by altering brain activity. Ralph Pascualy, the medical director of Northwest Hospital Sleep Center in Seattle, explained in an article for Southwest Airlines’ in-flight magazine Spirit that the brain naturally craves sensory input. Pascualy goes on to say that this is the reason why random noises in the middle of the night – like passing traffic or creaking floorboards – activate the restless brain and wake you up. But constant white noise sends a signal to the brain that dampens its internal systems.
Another interesting (albeit unintentional) fact I discovered while doing research is that there are different “colors” of noise, which differ in something called spectral density and are used in a variety of different situations. White noise, for instance, is referred to as white because it has equal energy per cycle that makes its frequency spectrum completely flat. Because it contains equal amounts of high and low frequencies, white noise machines can locate the source of background noise and cut through it easily. Pink noise, which has the same spectrum density as human hearing, is often used to test amplifiers and speakers. Brownian/red noise is heavily weighted at the lower levels of the frequency spectrum and sounds like a low roar. Other colors of noise include blue, violet, gray, orange, black and green.
I should clarify that white noise doesn’t necessarily have to come from a special device; oscillating fans can also do the trick. But there are a variety of white noise machines available for purchase, and no shortage of online product reviews to help you narrow down your search and find the right one. I personally use the two-speed Dohm Sound Conditioner (it also comes in a one-speed model that’s a little cheaper) and I would definitely recommend it to fellow Sleep Geeks who are looking to add white noise to their nightly routines. Some sleep machines are more fancy and give you the option of falling asleep to white noise or a variety of nature sounds, and there’s also a smart phone app called White Noise that was featured as one of Dr. Oz’s 13 miracles for 2013 for better sleep.
So whether you’re a college student with noisy suitemates, one half of a couple trying to find relief from your snoring significant other, or simply a light sleeper that gets woken up easily by even the slightest noise, investing in a white noise machine or smart phone application may be the solution you’ve been looking for.