If you’ve ever had trouble sleeping, you’ve probably heard of 'white noise'. It’s a common solution to sleep problems, especially in noisy environments. Here’s a look into how it works and more importantly, how you can use it to help you.
In the most technical terms, white noise is a unique pattern of sound that is used to mask background sounds. Audiologists would describe it as "noise with a constant amplitude throughout the audible frequency range". This kind of 'pure' white noise can only be generated electronically using precise mathematics.
It sounds a lot like radio static with harsh, high-frequency energy. Interestingly, there are many other 'colours' of noise such as red, brown, violet and pink, each with different technical applications in acoustics and engineering.
Less technically though, the term 'white noise' is often used to describe any kind of constant, unchanging background noise. This can be anything from sounds in nature such as waves, a crackling campfire, or the buzz of cicadas, to the artificial hum of an air conditioner or vacuum cleaner.
If you’ve ever struggled to sleep through the sound of a noisy neighbour or barking dog, white noise could help you. According to some neuroscientists, our hearing evolved as a biological alarm system and it never switches off. As we sleep, our brain is constantly monitoring the input from our ears, like a cognitive night watchman, and anything that seems unusual will alert us that something is wrong. In this way, it’s not the volume of the sound that startles us, it’s the context.
A recent study in hospital intensive care units showed that what actually disturbs sleepers is not the magnitude of ‘peak noise’ itself, but the difference between this peak noise and the background noise. In reality, this means that by adding white noise to your sleeping environment, you can mask the sound of the unusual noises that would otherwise normally wake you.
These days, white noise comes in many forms that you can implement at home. If you’re flush with cash (and presumably short on sleep) you can purchase a cutting edge 'sleep sound system' for hundreds of dollars. However, for others not wanting to spend as big, there are smartphone apps and MP3s easily available that do a similar job.
However, if you do get desperate and it’s the middle of the night with a thumping soundtrack coming from your neighbour, switch on a desk fan or put a load of washing on. It might not be perfect white noise, but it may be just enough background noise to get you through the night.