White Noise and Your Brain: The Science of Sound Machines

updated Jul 16, 2020
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Even if you consistently fall asleep each night to the soothing sounds of a South American rainforest or a raging thunderstorm, you might not know why your white noise machine works for you. Is there a scientific reason artificial soft sounds can lull us to sleep? Or is white noise like an aural placebo, providing rest and relaxation just because we’re convinced it’s relaxing?

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It turns out there is a reason that white noise machines can help you fall asleep, and stay asleep. And it’s not just because they mask other noises.

In a story for Spirit Magazine, one neurologist explains what goes on in your brain that makes white noise machines invaluable to a sound night of sleep:

Dr. Ralph Pascualy is the medical director of Northwest Hospital Sleep Center in Seattle. He explained to me that the brain naturally craves sensory input. That’s why people in sensory depravation tanks hallucinate; robbed of any stimulus, the brain creates its own. During sleep in a quiet night, any random noise, whether a passing truck or a creaking floorboard, is likely to activate the restless brain, waking you up. Constant white noise, he told me, “gives the brain a tonic signal that dampens its own internal systems.”

Of course, the “constant white noise” that Dr. Pascualy mentions doesn’t necessarily have to come from a bedside sound machine. As our own Beth Ziegler points out in her post Sounds to Help You Fall Asleep, the whir of a fan or purr of a pet cat works just as well to tune out your brain’s systems.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

It’s not beautiful to look at, but the white noise producing Dohm-DS Dual Speed Sound Conditioner by Marpac has over 2,200 reviews on Amazon, with 1,900 of them 4-5 star ratings. And the machine can be used to not only mask distracting noise at night, but also ambient noise during the day.

What do you listen to as you fall asleep? Do you get help from tech like a white noise machine or soft music?

• White Noise Machines for a Peaceful Night’s Sleep
• Get a Better Night’s Sleep Using White Noise
Can White Noise Machines Eliminate Traffic Noise?
Sounds to Help You Fall Asleep

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