“My favorite sort of parade,” observed Washington Heights resident Galvane Hendsberg, struggling for adequate words. “Not too much fuss and bother, easy to miss. I myself didn’t notice a thing.”
February 18, 2014 § Leave a comment
On its face, flipping on white noise before hitting the sack must be the most counterintuitive idea out there. Want to sleep better? Simple solution: make a bunch of noise. Sweet dreams ahoy.
And yet, not only do some people swear they can’t get to sleep without a fan running, there are even companies that will sell you optimized noise-makers for helping you get the best of your bed rest. What is up with our brains and our ears?
The short answer: white noise is better noise. At least for (some) sleepers.
White noise, if you’re using the technical definition, is a consistent noise that comes out evenly across all hearable frequencies. Say you’re a musician. To play a middle C note, you play something that’s about 261.6 hertz, the unit of frequency. White noise is just an equal amount at every frequency, from low to high, that a human being can hear. To keep the music analogy going, it’s a gigantic band all playing a slightly different note. (Machines pushed to the limit, like fans, are especially good at hitting these notes.)
When a noise wakes you up in the night, it’s not the noise itself that wakes you up, per se, but the sudden change or inconsistencies in noise that jar you. White noise creates a masking effect, blocking out those sudden changes that frustrate light sleepers, or people trying to fall asleep. “The simple version is that hearing still works while you’re asleep,” says Seth S. Horowitz, a neuroscientist and author of The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind.
“This is why the majority of bedpartners prefer the constant white noise of a CPAP machine rather than their spouse’s crescendo-decrescendo snoring sounds,” Clete A. Kushida, director of the Stanford Center for Human Sleep Research, writes in an email to Popular Science.
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PHOTOGRAPH: Hagiwara Yoshihiro