How Certain Sounds Help Us Sleep

One sheep, two sheep—hold the phone. There are easier ways to fall asleep, like listening to some favorite tunes or embracing the sounds of nature. Read on to find out about other sounds that can help us get a good night’s rest.
How Certain Sounds Help Us Sleep

Is it time to toss the late-night texting and Tweeting habits? According to a nationwide survey by the National Sleep Foundation in 2011, Generation Y has more difficulty falling asleep than any other population. In fact, people of all ages are having some problems in the bedroom: Over 70 million Americans suffer from sleep problems like insomnia Neurology of sleep and sleep-related breathing disorders and their relationships to sleep bruxism. Simmons, J.H. University of California, Los Angeles' Sleep Center, USA. Journal of California Dental Association. 2012 Feb;40(2):159-67.. But sleep is a fundamental part of a healthy lifestyle, since it gives our bodies some R&R, keeps our brains sharp, and can even improve memory Interfering with theories of sleep and memory: sleep, declarative memory, and associative interference. Ellenbogen, J.M., Hulbert, J.C., Stickgold, R., et al. Center for Sleep and Cognition, Harvard Medical School, 330 Brookline Avenue, Feldberg 861, Boston, Massachusetts 02215, USA. Current Biology. 2006 Jul 11;16(13):1290-4.. There’s no one magical formula to catching those Zzs, but research suggests certain sounds can help us drift off to dreamland. From white noise to the sounds of the Amazon, find out which noises may help us sleep better—and which ones will only leave us with bags under our eyes.

Please Don’t Stop the Music—The Need-To-Know

During sleep, we still perceive sounds and process them in a part of the brain called the auditory cortex Spontaneous brain rhythms predict sleep stability in the face of noise. Dang-Vu, T.T., McKinney, S.M., Buxton, O.M., et al. Division of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115, USA. Current Biology. 2010 Aug 10;20(15):R626-7. Functional neuroimaging in sleep, sleep deprivation, and sleep disorders. Desseilles, M., Vu, T.D. and Maquet, P. Cyclotron Research Center, University of Liège, Belgium. Handbook of Clinical Neurology. 2011;98:71-94. Interplay between spontaneous and induced brain activity during human non-rapid eye movement sleep. Dang-Vu, T.T., Bonjean, M., Schabus, M., et al. Cyclotron Research Centre, University of Liège, B-4000 Liège, Belgium. Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences U.S.A. 2011 Sep 13;108(37):15438-43.. But there’s no need to whisper while gossiping about a sleeping pal—people are much less sensitive to their environment when they’re snoozing than when they’re awake Functional neuroimaging in sleep, sleep deprivation, and sleep disorders. Desseilles, M., Vu, T.D. and Maquet, P. Cyclotron Research Center, University of Liège, Belgium. Handbook of Clinical Neurology. 2011;98:71-94.. Our sensitivity to noise varies a lot based on the kinds of brain waves we produce while sleeping Interfering with theories of sleep and memory: sleep, declarative memory, and associative interference. Ellenbogen, J.M., Hulbert, J.C., Stickgold, R., et al. Center for Sleep and Cognition, Harvard Medical School, 330 Brookline Avenue, Feldberg 861, Boston, Massachusetts 02215, USA. Current Biology. 2006 Jul 11;16(13):1290-4.. Some people wake up if a feather drops; others can sleep through a fire alarm.

The sounds we notice while sleeping or falling asleep can either be alarming or relaxing, says Orfeu Buxton, a neuroscientist at the Sleep Division at Harvard Medical School. Alarming sounds can disrupt the process of falling asleep; relaxing sounds, on the other hand, can help us fall asleep more quickly and sleep more deeply  Spontaneous brain rhythms predict sleep stability in the face of noise. Dang-Vu, T.T., McKinney, S.M., Buxton, O.M., et al. Division of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115, USA. Current Biology. 2010 Aug 10;20(15):R626-7. Pink noise: Effect on complexity synchronization of brain activity and sleep consolidation. Zhou, J., Liu, D., Li, X., et al. Academy for Advanced Interdisciplinary Studies, Peking University, Beijing 100871, People's Republic of China. Journal of Theoretical Biology. 2012 Aug 7;306:68-72.. But it’s not always easy to know whether those Friends reruns on low volume will be soothing or disruptive.

Sleep On It—Your Action Plan

Whether a sound is relaxing or disruptive depends a lot on the individual. Sometimes we find sounds pleasant because of positive emotional associations, so the sound of man’s best friend barking can be relaxing for a dog person.

But there are lots of sounds out there, and it can take some time to figure out which ones work for you. Neuroscientist Hawley Montgomery-Downs of West Virginia University recommends we try specific sounds for at least a few nights to find out if it’s really helping us get a better night’s rest. Try some of the sounds below for a solid chunk of snooze time.

  • Embrace Nature. Ocean waves, rainforest animals, thunderstorms, and even the Chinese giant salamander can all be pleasant sounds to fall asleep to Neural representations of complex temporal modulations in the human auditory cortex. Ding, N. and Simon, J.Z. Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20815, USA. Journal of Neurophysiology. 2009 Nov;102(5):2731-43.. Natural noises are less likely to annoy us than some other sounds because they usually include fluctuations in amplitude and frequency. But those using rain and ocean sounds should make sure there’s a toilet nearby, since Buxton warns that the sound of water can trigger the need to use the bathroom.
  • Get personal. Sometimes there’s nothing quite as relaxing as another human voice. Try some of the fancy new apps out there like pzizz, which lulls listeners to sleep with soothing voices, or record a close friend reciting the instructions in a muscle relaxation demo that can guide us into sleep.
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