Are you a light sleeper? Perhaps you live in a noisy environment with endless traffic, beeping horns, and sirens? Outside noises are a fact of life and for many of us, these outside noises can jostle us awake. Not only can these noises steal your slumber, making you feel drowsy the next day, they can also negatively affect your health and well-being. Most of us don’t live under a flight path or next to railway tracks, but masking noise is still important to quality sleep. White noise can help you fall asleep and stay asleep longer at night.
What exactly is White Noise and how can it help you sleep?
In simple terms, white noise is a combination of all the frequencies of sound the human ear can hear. White noise is similar to the sounds you hear when there is no signal on your TV or radio. A sound you probably want to get rid of as soon as possible. However, this constant humming can stop you from being distracted by changes in the volume of traffic, loud motorbikes, trucks, and beeping horns. White noise works by reducing the difference between background sounds and a ‘peak’ sound, like a door slamming, giving you a better chance to sleep through it undisturbed. If you have difficulty falling asleep, creating a constant ambient sound could help mask activity from inside and outside the house.
The sound of white noise we hear as humans is the sound of all the frequencies between 20 and 20,000 Hz. So we are literally hearing around 20,000 different tones of sound all at the same time. Some machines — like fans, for instance, can inadvertently create white noise by hitting all these notes.
When there are sudden changes in noise, we are often distracted by the jarring crash. White noise’s masking effect blocks out those changes, making it easier to sleep during the night. That’s one reason people leave a fan, air conditioner or television on in the middle of the night.
When a noise wakes you up in the night, it’s not the noise itself that wakes you up, but the sudden changes or inconsistencies in noise that jars you. White noise creates a masking effect, blocking out those sudden changes that frustrate light sleepers, or people trying to fall asleep. Often people forget that hearing still works while your asleep, says Seth S. Horowitz, a neuroscientist and author of The Universal Sense: How hearing Shapes the Minds.
How Your Brain Reacts to White Noise
The brain’s reaction to white noise isn’t radically different from its reactions to other sounds and is processed very similarly to other noises in the brain. However, the brain doesn’t treat it in the same way as speech or song. EEG studies show that the brain thinks that white noise is less worthy of attention than pure tones. That is why white noise helps lull your brain to sleep by masking the random noise and sudden sounds — It masks the random noise of external sounds (i.e., street noise, and sudden noises) but it isn’t annoying enough to register in the brain. Having a constant white noise will, therefore, satisfy your brain’s need for stimulation and prevent it from getting overexcited when it hears a sudden noise in the night.
White Noise and Nature