Many people swear that they can't fall asleep without a sound machine -- but why is it that a little background noise can sometimes help us sleep?
While it might sound counterintuitive to use sounds to quiet your brain, studies have shown that white noise -- whether it's the buzz of your air conditioner or the pitter-patter of a jungle rainstorm coming from your sound machine -- can be beneficial as a sleep tool.
Dr. Christopher Winter, a neurologist and sleep medicine doctor in Charlottesville, Virginia, explained to The Huffington Post how it can actually help some people fall -- and stay -- asleep.
"It's very important that the room is quiet -- that's the optimal situation for sleep," said Winter, who's also a HuffPost blogger. "But noise machines do a good job if the individual is not capable of conditioning the sound of their room."
Our brains continue to process sounds while we're asleep -- which is why noise can wake us up. So if you can't get rid of all the sounds in and around your bedroom, a noise machine might be the way to go.
White noise works by drowning out the disruptive sounds that might wake us up, like snoring, traffic outside our window or a neighbor playing music. And because the sound is steady but unpredictable, it gently captivates our attention without requiring any real focus.
"There's really nothing there to process -- it's a very basic, nonrepetitive sound," Winter said. "It's an ambient noise that... passes through our consciousness and doesn't really arouse any emotion."
Even people who seemingly aren't bothered by nighttime sounds can move between different sleep stages and experience changes in heart rate and blood pressure when they hear noise, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
"When you're asleep, your brain is still taking in auditory input and processing it in a rudimentary way," Winter said. "The brain is actively hearing -- just not to the point where you can learn to speak Spanish in your sleep."
For instance, researchers involved in a 2014 study played audio of someone reading a list of words while people slept. They found that sleeping participants' brains automatically categorized the words being read as either "verbs" or "colors."
White noise is certainly no magic sleep potion. Some people have found that it actually increases their sensitivity to the underlying sounds it's trying to block, Popular Science reported.
But for many people, getting better sleep may not be so much a question of getting rid of noise as a question of replacing it with better noise.
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