When I was a baby, my mother would routinely vacuum the house in a bid to encourage me to sleep soundly. Other similarly unusual tactics included taking me for a ride in the car, and using a hair dryer.
Fast forward many years later, and I find myself oddly soothed by the subtle whirring of our household hot air heating system – often finding it easier to sleep when the system kicks in.
Continuing on a similar trend, I’ve often noticed how music without vocals – particularly repetitive and familiar music – helps me stay focused at work when working to stressful deadlines. At first, I never drew the comparison between older me (struggling with the typical stress of a 9-5) and the younger me (gently soothed to sleep by what seems to be a counterintuitive method). I now know, it wasn’t the vacuum cleaner per-say that was soothing me to sleep, it was the type of noise it emits – white noise, to be exact.
What is White Noise?
In really simple terms, white noise is a random signal containing many frequencies played at equal intensity. For us humans, that means white noise is the entire human range of hearing (20Hz – 20KHz) played at equal level. The result is a hissing sound that you might remember from tuning your old television or radio set to a vacant frequency.
Side note: OK, so admittedly, vacuum cleaner and heating system sounds aren’t white noise in the scientific sense; the frequencies aren’t all equal intensity as described above, but the effect is very similar. Many frequencies at comparable amplitude create a result akin to white noise proper. For this reason, many people use the term white noise loosely to describe a number of persistent background noises.
Pink Noise and Brown Noise?
Before we continue, it’s important to understand that not all generated noises are equal or the same – there are variations.
Pink noise is a variation on white noise that sounds deeper and less high-pitched. The sound is filtered to counter-act the fact each octave contains twice as many frequencies as the one below it.
Brown noise (or Brownian noise) is deeper and warmer still. It is created by Brownian motion, which I’m not even going to begin to explain (you can turn to Google if you really must know). Basically, a random offset to each sample is added to obtain the next one. The result is a low-frequency rich roar, not too dissimilar to a waterfall.
Why Does White Noise Help Concentration, Sleep, and Stress levels?
Quite simply, white noise helps mask distracting – and often distressing – background noise. It seems counterintuitive, but by masking sudden or sporadic sound with consistent noise, we become less distracted or disturbed, which can positively impact your quality of sleep, concentration levels, and more.
Here are some examples:
1. Sleep Better by Blocking Out Unwanted Noise
White, Pink, or Brown noise is effective at blocking out unwanted noises, such as traffic or noisy neighbors. The consistency of white noise will prevent your mind from jumping to attention every time there’s a loud or disturbing sound. Ironically, the answer to your noise problems, could, in fact, be more noise.
You’ll have to experiment with White, Pink, and Brown noise to find out which works best for you. I prefer Brownian noise for sleep as the tone is more pleasing (in my experience). If synthetic noise isn’t your thing, try experimenting with some natural “white noise” sounds like running water, fans, and soothing ocean tide.
2. White Noise for Concentration
I frequently use white noise when I need to concentrate in an open-office environment; in fact, I’m listening to white noise as I write this article. In my experience, the distracting, sporadic ambient noise of an open office wreaks havoc on concentration levels, and ultimately, creativity.
But don’t take my word for it….
A study published by the Oxford University Press demonstrates how a moderate (70 dB) level of ambient noise can enhance performance on creative tasks. A high degree of noise (85 dB), on the other hand, hurts creativity.
Similarly, a report by NASA in 2004 states individuals tend to become accustomed to continuous noise over time, resulting in gradually improved performance. The report also suggested that intermittent noise is more detrimental to performance levels than constant noise.
The research isn’t all positive, though, other studies highlight some individuals who find their stress levels actually go up. While it might seem flippant to suggest you’ll just have to see for yourself, it would appear it really does depend on your own tolerances.
3. Soothe Your Crying Baby
White noise can also help parents pacify difficult babies, with some studies showing how 80% of infants fall asleep within five minutes in response to white noise. The logic here is relatively straightforward: the womb is noisy place. Infants grow used to the constant sound of their mother’s heart and blood flow — making the transition from womb to the big-wide-world a difficult leap.
Many folks recommend you play white noise to children for up to a year after they’re born to aid transition into the wider world. Alternatively, there are products on the market that play real heartbeat and womb sound combinations to mimic the noises babies hear inside the womb — see Ewan the Dream Sheep by Sweet Dreamers as an example.
4. White Noise for Tinnitus Relief
Physicians will often prescribe sound therapy to patients suffering from Tinnitus. As the condition is most noticeable in quiet environments, white noise effectively masks the noise of tinnitus and provides much-needed relief.
Start Your Own White Noise Journey
While some remain sceptical as to whether or not noise can help or hinder cognitive function, it seems to work wonders for me. When all is said and done, everyone is different; your natural tolerance to noise and your reaction to different sounds is unique to you. In my experience, it pays to have a selection of generated and natural white noise samples at your disposal. Certain sounds work better for some applications than others, and you’ll likely go slightly loopy if you continuously listen to the same sound. I use a combination of White, Pink, and Brown noise, along with a selection of soothing natural sounds for a number of applications. Once I tire of one sound, I simply switch to an alternative.
To help get you started on your own journey to a more productive, better rested, and less stressed you, I’ve put together a useful collection of White Noise sounds. The pack contains all three core sound colours (white, pink, brown) alongside two extra “real” sounds. The first is a natural waterfall sound taken from an old mill, and the second is a box-fan sound. The complete pack of five, 1-hour mp3 files is available to download for $4.99. Load them up on your smartphone for a more productive day, or play them on repeat for a sound night’s sleep; give it a go, and I’ll return your money if it doesn’t work for you.