How white noise impacts sleep and productivity
Ahh. White noise: The noise that makes all other noises go away. This audial phenomenon masks background disturbances that can wreak havoc on sleep with a consistent sound that comes across evenly on all hearing frequencies.
Whether you hear traffic or sirens from the street outside your window, a hallway door that slams shut near your room, or just odd sounds that go bump in the night, having a source of white noise can help you drift off to an uninterrupted sleep. “It makes or breaks our day, based on how we sleep at night,” says Terry Cralle, a Washington, D.C.-based certified sleep educator and co-author of Sleeping Your Way to the Top: How to Get the Sleep You Need to Succeed.
How white noise works
As you well know, crying children, loud traffic and barking dogs can all disrupt sleep. “White noise sounds like a hiss, and there’s no tone that your mind can connect to or follow,” says Anne Bartolucci, Ph.D., the chief psychologist of Atlanta Insomnia and Behavioral Health Services.
There are other similar forms of background noise that vary due to how they sound across low and high frequencies—you can sample and compare white, grey, brown, violet, blue, pink and even black noise on YouTube. “Listen to the different kinds of noise and decide what you find more soothing,” says Bartolucci, whose book, Business Basics For Private Practice: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals, comes out later this year.
Besides YouTube, there are a range of free and low-cost white noise apps you can download to your phone. Bartolucci likes White Noise and Relax Melodies, which offers additional soothing sounds, as well as white and other color noise. IHG’s white noise player offers a variety of sounds like rain, waves or even a fan – you can even combine sounds to create a dream-inducing wonderland.
Once you pick your favorite background noise, put it in the most effective spot in the room—which probably isn’t your nightstand. Place your device near the source of the sound, such as underneath a window to block the blare of traffic. If you don’t have a phone, tablet or laptop around, you can also create white noise by running an air conditioner or a bathroom fan as you sleep.
How white noise boosts productivity
White noise helps with productivity in two ways. Can you guess the first? If you sleep better, you’re more likely to be productive the next day. “Sleep is such a performance-enhancer,” says Cralle.
But you can also use white noise to get more done when you’re fully awake. According to research done at the University of Illinois and elsewhere, a comfortable amount of background noise (about as much sound as a car speeding along on the highway, or 70 decibels) helps promote creativity. Louder noise (such as the honking and blaring noise of traffic on a major road, or 85 decibels) is distracting and makes it harder to think, stifling creativity.
“Our findings imply that instead of burying oneself in a quiet room trying to figure out a solution, walking outside of one’s comfort zone and getting into a relatively noisy environment like a café may actually trigger the brain to think abstractly, and thus generate creative ideas,” researcher Ravi Mehta told the Illinois News Bureau.
So the next time you’re trying to solve a problem or drift off to sleep, think about making a little noise. Just a little. It can help you focus on what’s important.
“Sometimes people use white noise because they feel like it’s too quiet,” Bartolucci said. “As one patient told me, ‘It’s too quiet to sleep, and my thoughts are more likely to distract me and keep me awake.’ Instead, white noise gives them something to focus on.”
Written by Cheryl Alkon
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