Getting a kid to sleep is no joke, whether it’s pulling off this Indiana Jones maneuver or answering 432 questions about the nature of intesticles and callapittars while brushing teeth, I know I can’t be the only one that silently fist pumps as I tiptoe out of a sleeping child’s room.
Now don’t get me wrong. I adore my kids, but one of my life goals is to go to the restroom by myself at least once per day. To make sure that happens, I have long relied on our Homedics sound machine, aka the keeper-asleeper-of-sleeping-children.
Then a few weeks ago, while on vacation with some dear friends, another mom mentioned to me that they might inhibit brain function. Um, what?
Brains Adapt to White Noise Machines
Now I’m not really one to go looking for things to worry about, but since the potami spend nearly 1/3 of their lives sleeping with a sound machine playing in the background I felt like I needed to check into it.
What I learned is that studies do suggest white noise can increase our stress load, impair cognitive function and possibly even delay brain development. Fortunately, there’s a solution that involves one small tweak to your sound environment. We’ll get to that soon, but…
First, try this (I dare you!)
Without analyzing things too much, click play and watch this video. No skipping ahead, mmkay? This is serious business.
You bobbed your head at least a little, didn’t you? It’s okay, this is a safe place. We won’t tell.
Here’s the thing, though, your response isn’t necessarily due to your love (or lack thereof) of the Back Street Boys. In Healing At The Speed Of Sound, authors Don Campbell and Alex Doman explain why:
Aside from songbirds, humans are the only creatures that automatically feel the beat of a song, according to Nina Kraus, a professor of neurobiology at Northwestern University. Music entrains our bodies – physically by activating the muscle-control centers of our brains that get us moving to the rhythm, and emotionally by guiding our moods into synchronicity with its own tone.”
That last part about guiding our moods describes one of the most fascinating aspects of brain entrainment, or how our brains mirror the sounds around us. When the sounds are meaningful and beautiful, our brains become more organized and integrated. When the sounds are chaotic and stressful, our brains struggle with basic functions.
Does my sound machine impair brain function and development?
If you’re like me, you’ve probably always equated white noise with the sound of rain, or waves, or some other sound in nature. Interestingly, it’s not natural at all, and therein lies the problem.
White noise is actually machine-generated static that is used to mask annoying or distracting sounds. It works by combining all the frequencies we can hear – about 20,000 tones – into one sound.
Basically, it’s the equivalent of a huge orchestra all playing a different note at once. What you get is not music, but a wall of sound that blocks other sounds.
Of course, few of us (if any) can relax to the sound of scratchy static generated by radio, or any other form. White noise manufacturers know that, so they embed the static within sound clips of waves or rain to make it more palatable. Though it seems like a sensible solution, this approach may actually cause several problems:
Increased stress levels, impaired cognitive function
One really important feature of white noise is that it “has equal power across all frequencies,” meaning that the wall of sound contains both high-pitched and low-pitched frequencies. (source) High-pitched frequencies can be stressful to the body, which is why they are filtered out in sound therapies such as pink and brown noise.
According to this Scientific American article:
Several studies have indicated that stress resulting from ongoing white noise can induce the release of cortisol, a hormone that helps to restore homeostasis in the body after a bad experience. Excess cortisol impairs function in the prefrontal cortex—an emotional learning center that helps to regulate ‘executive’ functions such as planning, reasoning and impulse control. Some recent evidence indicates that the prefrontal cortex also stores short-term memories. Changes to this region, therefore, may disrupt a person’s capacity to think clearly and to retain information.
Though not definitive, recent research also suggests that noise-induced stress may decrease dopamine availability in the prefrontal cortex, where the hormone controls the flow of information from other parts of the body. Stress resulting from background noise, then, may decrease higher brain function, impairing learning and memory.”
Why does white noise have this effect? One theory is that our brains are hardwired to interpret meaningful noise rather than static. According to Campbell and Doman, “Certain sounds, provided in the right context and combinations, can organize our neural activity, stimulate our bodies, [and] retune our emotions.”
When the sounds grow “more coherent – sounding more like a real melody – different parts of the brain interact in a more intense and consistent, or coherent, manner.” In contrast, when confronted with a disorganized sound, “your brain creates a stress response that can include a rise in blood pressure and shallow breathing.” (source)
According to this perspective, even though we don’t hear the static underlying white noise consciously, our auditory processing centers do and they do their best to filter that into meaningful information for us. However, since our brains are not optimally wired to interpret static, it may leave us with the stress of constantly trying to figure out what we’re hearing on a subconscious level.
Potentially impaired brain development in children
This section comes with a HUGE SILVER LINING, so read on! This study found that, in rats, exposure to “continuous white noise sabotages the development of the auditory region of the brain, which may ultimately impair hearing and language acquisition.” (source)
Now obviously rats aren’t people, but we can still extrapolate very valuable information regarding general auditory development in mammals from this study.
The good news is that although brain development was significantly delayed, the rats compensated by extending the “critical period” in which the brain wires its neural networks – a feature called neuroplasticity. As soon as the white noise was removed, they completely caught up.
One of the researchers, Edward Chang, summarized by saying “it’s like the brain is waiting for some clearly patterned sounds in order to continue its development. And when it finally gets them, it is heavily by influenced them, even when the animal is physically older.”
Sound and our circadian rhythms
As mentioned earlier, most white noise is paired with a soundbite, usually a five-second clip of ocean waves/rain/etc. played on a loop. In nature, nothing repeats on a five-second loop for eight hours straight, which got me wondering what kind of effect this might have.
According to this study published in the American Journal of Physiology, sounds have as much impact on our circadian rhythms as light. Could exposure to a repetitive 5-second clip throughout the night disrupt our internal biological rhythms? At this point, we don’t have any studies on that, but I think it’s a question worth asking.
Are white noise machines bad?
Eh, I wouldn’t say that. They’re better than being kept awake by intrusive sounds, that’s for sure. But after using one for years, I have often found myself thinking about how glad I will to be rid of it when our toddler transitions out of our bed.
Now that I understand how my body responds to noise instead of meaningful sound, those thoughts make a lot more sense.
Fortunately, I don’t have to wait. Remember Alex Doman, the co-author of Healing At The Speed Of Sound I mentioned earlier? Well, I had the privilege of talking with him recently about one of his latest projects…
Sleep Genius: A Better Way To Fall (And Stay) Asleep
At the beginning of this post, I told you that making one small change in your auditory sleep environment could have a huge impact, and now I’m going to tell you what it is: Sleep Genius. It’s sound therapy that comes in the form of a $5 app designed for iPhone and Android.
Recently featured in Spinoff, a magazine created by NASA to celebrate the use of its technologies in everyday life, Sleep Genius is a completely new type of sound therapy.
Developed by Dr. Seth Horowitz, one of the auditory neuroscientists who worked on the original project with NASA to help astronauts overcome insomnia, along with Alex Doman (author of Healing At The Speed Of Sound and the founder of Advanced Brain Technologies), Lance Massey (the musician who created the famous T-Mobile ringtone) and Vera Brandes (an expert in music therapy who serves as the Director of Research Program for Music-Medicine at Paracelsus Medical University in Austria), Sleep Genius uses four research-backed techniques to help our brains sleep better, deeper, and longer.
Unlike white noise, which masks disruptive noise but has no detectable impact on our brains sleep center, these four techniques work with our biology to filter out distracting noises and bring in sleep-enhancing sounds, thus improving sleep quality.
Though they sound very clinical, neurosensory algorithms are actually more like the comforting arms of a mother than cold electrodes on your brain. Here’s what I mean:
If you’ve ever rocked a baby to sleep or become drowsy while riding in a car, you’ve experienced a curious phenomenon called the vestibular effect.
Basically, the vestibular system is a sensory system that detects motion and helps us keep our balance. Interestingly, it’s also hardwired to the sleep network in our brain – “the suprachiasmatic nucleus, the master clock in charge of regulating our circadian rhythms, and a region in the hypothalamus that’s host to a stimulation-inducing neuropeptide called orexin.” (source)
High-amplitude vibrations picked up by the vestibular system stimulate alertness, while low-amplitude vibrations make us sleepy. What NASA research revealed is that motions such as rocking or riding in a car are not the only way to deliver low-amplitude vibrations – we can do the same thing with sound.
Using very specific algorithms, Sleep Genius “rocks” the vestibular system to sleep using very specific musical vibrations – pretty amazing, huh?
Multi-Band Binaural Beats
These pulses of sound “induce synchronization from the brain stem to the frontal lobe. Multiband binaural beats create a relaxing cascade of sound that gently and efficiently help you maintain deep, restorative sleep.” (source)
Similar to white noise, pink noise helps to mask annoying and intrusive sounds. The important difference between the two is that the stress-inducing, high-pitched frequencies found in white noise are filtered out of pink noise.
As you’ve probably already guessed, this is a blend of relaxing sounds and harmonies that weave the three previous elements together.
The downside of Sleep Genius
Last night, as Sleep Genius played softly in the background, I crawled into bed to write for a few minutes before drifting off to sleep. The aroma of ylang ylang, patchouli, frankincense, clary sage, sweet orange and thyme drifted across the room as I scribbled in my salt-lamp illuminated journal. It was pretty much perfect, but there is one downside of Sleep Genius I want to mention.
Unlike white noise machines, which create a wall of sound to block other sounds, Sleep Genius integrates pink noise with other components to relax the mind, rock the vestibular system to sleep, and encourage optimal sleep patterns.
Though it creates a relaxing spa-like environment – which, I kid you not, has drastically reduced the amount of time it takes for my kids to fall asleep AND helped them sleep longer – it doesn’t block noise in the same way that white noise machines do. It filters out some, but it doesn’t completely block it.
The first night I used Sleep Genius was a little difficult, because I’d come to believe I needed the “wall of sound” to relax. By the second night, though, I realized that even though I could hear more ambient noise, my mind was so relaxed it just rolled off me like water off a ducks back. In contrast, when I was using the white noise machine, even small noises would often disrupt my sleep.
Personally, after experiencing Sleep Genius I cannot imagine going back to my white noise machine unless it was to counteract very intrusive noise while traveling, etc., but I wanted to mention this so you won’t be caught by surprise.
Which Sleep Genius should I get?
The app can be downloaded to your phone, but you’ll need to hook your phone up to a high-quality speaker to get the benefits. I suggest putting your phone in airplane mode before you go to sleep.
Also, if you use the app to help your little one nap, you’ll need to relinquish your phone while he/she is asleep. As an alternative, if you have an old phone you’re not using, you can make it a dedicated Sleep Genius phone.
This article was medically reviewed by Madiha Saeed, MD, a board certified family physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Have you tried Sleep Genius? Please share how it worked for you in the comments!