Young woman holds purple earplugs up near her ears.

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Sleep and the 5 Senses: Hearing

· Article

Sleep and the 5 Senses: Hearing

When we think of hearing and sleep, we often consider the noisemakers: wailing sirens, crying babies, upstairs neighbors who sound like they’re jumping around in platform heels. Hearing is so closely tied to disturbing our slumber that many can’t function without a morning alarm.


As part of a series on sleep and the five senses, we’re exploring hearing. But ears are good for more than sleep disruption. With a little strategy, the sense of hearing can work in favor of sleep.


Silence is Golden … Sometimes

While silence is often thought to be optimal for sleep, preferences regarding environmental noise can vary based on personal experiences and the conditions our ears have come to associate with rest.


“Oftentimes people have difficulty sleeping away from home,” explains Dr. Mark J. Muehlbach, clinical director at Clayton Sleep Institute in St. Louis, Missouri. “If you live in an urban area, you are more likely to be exposed to light and noise during sleep … If you live in a rural area, you may be more accustomed to sleeping in a dark and quiet environment.”


If you prefer silence but live in a noisier neighborhood, or with a snoring bed partner, earplugs can help. Many are designed exclusively for sleep and come in a variety of materials including foam, wax and silicone. This list might help you sort through some options.


Think Pink or White

If a quiet room makes you toss and turn, try adding pink or white noise. These noises combine sound of different frequencies, producing a consistent hum or whir that can be soothing. Your ideal hue is matter of preference. White noise is comparable to the sound of television static, which may be too harsh or tinny for some ears. Like white noise, pink noise includes all frequencies, but it emphasizes the lower ones, creating a deeper sound that may be more comforting.


The market is full of stand-alone noise machines, but you may want to experiment with free apps or online streaming to get a sense of what works best for you. You can find dozens of downloadable apps by searching “sleep sounds.” The online music service Spotify has a variety of playlists that provide hours of both white and pink noise.


Beats for Sleep

Some studies suggest that listening to “binaural beat” recordings at bedtime can aid relaxation and improve sleep quality. At first listen, these recordings may sound like nothing more than a stripped-down deep house track (a quick YouTube search will yield dozens), but there’s a scientific explanation for why they work for some people.


According to Martin Fagin, cognitive psychology professor at The New School for Social Research and John Jay College of Criminal Justice, “Binaural beats are used to help induce various psychological states that are correlated with specific brainwave states.”


Fagin explains that by providing two different frequencies to each ear, the brain compensates by hearing a difference in the frequencies, or an “illusory auditory stimulus” that the brain tries to synchronize with.


It’s similar to how your stride may naturally sync with a song on your headphones as you walk down the street. In this case, your brain is doing the syncing and the result isn’t a peppier step but a mental or emotional state that your brain associates with sleep.


In one eight-week study, 15 elite soccer players listened to binaural beats during sleep, while a control group slept without the beats. The athletes who were exposed to binaural beats reported feeling better rested and more motivated than they did before the experiment.


If getting a solid night of sleep sounds good to you, perhaps one of these ideas will resonate. Experiment with silence and pink noise, and sync your brain with potentially sleep-inducing beats. Listen to your body — you may be surprised by what you hear.



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