What Is White Noise & What Can It Do For You?
A unique combination of clinical psychologist, nutritionist, and special education teacher, Dr. Nicole Beurkens, PhD, has almost 20 years of experience supporting children, young adults, and families. She holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology, a Master’s in Nutrition and Integrative Health, and a Master’s in Special Education, and is trained in numerous specialty areas.
White noise has been used for years to help people relax and get some sleep. But, while you might be familiar with what white noise sounds like, you may not be clear on what exactly it is and why it's such an effective tool. Here's what you need to know about white noise, plus how it can help you in your daily life.
What is white noise?
White noise makes a seemingly fuzzy sound. "It occurs when all the sounds you can hear are presented at the same time," says Anna C. Cosgrove, Au.D., an audiologist at Massachusetts Eye and Ear.
White noise is actually rare outside of recordings and white noise machines. "Most things in nature don't sound like this," Cosgrove points out. White noise isn't the only "color" noise out there—there are other noises based on different sound frequencies, like blue, pink, and brown noise. These noises have a similar ambient feel but are distinctly different from white noise.
What does it do to the body?
White noise can affect your body in several ways, and everyone may experience it slightly differently. For example, while some people might find they respond well to white noise, others may find they do better with brown noise. In general, though, these are the main ways white noise can affect the body:
1. It helps you fall asleep.
The effects of white noise on sleep have been researched pretty extensively. One study published in the Journal of Caring Sciences studied the sleep patterns of people who were hospitalized—some were exposed to white noise, while others weren't. The researchers discovered that those who slept with white noise had no change in the average amount of sleep they got a night, while the control group who had no white noise found their average sleep time dropped from about seven hours to less than five hours a night.
Another study published in the journal Sleep found that people fell asleep an average of 40% faster when they were exposed to white noise versus when they just heard normal environmental sounds.
"Even if seemingly meaningless during the day, noises at night can affect sleep cycles," says licensed clinical psychologist Alicia H Clark, Psy.D., author of Hack Your Anxiety. "A ticking clock, traffic sounds, or notifications on our smartphone can all disrupt the quality of our sleep." White noise, however, can help block out those sounds to help with sleep.
2. It's good for babies at night.
Getting babies to sleep under the best of situations can be tricky, but research has found that white noise can help. One older study analyzed two groups of 20 babies who were between 2 and 7 days old in a randomized trial. Most babies in the white noise group—80%—fell asleep within five minutes, while only 25% of the non-white-noise babies fell asleep during that time. As a result, the researchers concluded, "white noise may help mothers settle difficult babies."
"White noise is understood to block out the sounds of a household that could disrupt sleep, like a sibling, or parent's conversation," Clark says. "White noise can also mimic internal physiological sounds, like a heartbeat or digestions, that are familiar and therefore soothing to an infant, provided it isn't too loud or continuous."
Volume is important, though. Research published in the journal Pediatrics found that several sound machines used at full volume exceeded 50 dBA, the current recommended noise limit for infants in hospital nurseries. As a result, the researchers recommend that parents move infant sleep machines to farther away than 200 centimeters from their sleeping baby and to lower the volume to protect their baby's hearing.
3. It can ease anxiety.
One study published in the Journal of Nursing Research studied the behavior of 63 anxious dementia patients, some of whom were exposed to white noise. The study found that those who were exposed to the white noise were "significantly" less agitated while they heard the noise and afterward than those who weren't exposed to white noise.
Anxiety can happen for many reasons, and it can be sparked by "unpredictable and intermittent" noises, Clark says. "But anxiety more often parallels internal thoughts and experiences that can feel entrapping and be hard to ignore or stop," she says. White noise can help people struggling with anxiety block out those sounds and thoughts. "Like a mantra or a happy place often invited at the outset of relaxation or meditation session, white noise can provide a focal refuge when rumination threatens to take over," she says.
One of the most effective ways to combat anxiety is to take control, Clark says. "Whether it's your attitude, your behavior, or even your environment, doing something with anxiety helps ease it," she explains. "White noise can materially help shift your environment and thus deliver control when anxiety strikes."
4. It helps you study.
Research has found a link between studying with white noise and retaining more information. One study published in Scientific Reports followed 80 young adults as they tried to learn the names of 20 new things. Each subject had five learning phases, followed by a recall test and a final recognition test. Half of the participants listened to white noise during the learning phases, and half learned in silence. The researchers discovered that the white noise group had a "superior" ability to remember the names of the objects compared to the non-white-noise group.
White noise may be helpful for studying simply because it can help drown out other noises. "A person can only stay alert and listen for sounds when they have a chance to hear them," Cosgrove explains. "White noise blocks or masks these sounds that might typically be heard in a quiet room."
5. It can help reduce tinnitus.
Tinnitus is a common condition that causes a ringing or buzzing sound in one or both ears that can be constant or come and go—and white noise can help with it.
"Some people get tinnitus when their brain can't hear sounds anymore, which leads the brain to 'turn up the volume' and introduce its own neural noise in the form of ringing," Cosgrove says. "The presence of white noise keeps the brain listening to the white noise instead of to the neural noise."
Interested in trying out white noise? Just keep the volume in check. "It should be audible, but not overpowering," Cosgrove says.
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