Why a 50-Year-Old Gadget May Be the Best Cure for Insomnia

by Lars Peterson on 31 October 2013 2 comments

Babies are known to sleep better when they're near the sound of a vacuum cleaner, noise of blow dryers, or soft hums of fans.

So-called "white noise" is not just for restless infants, either. Sleep experts now recommend white noise for insomnia sufferers of all ages because it's an effective alternative to "pharmacological" treatments — pills — for sleeplessness. (See also: Sleep Better With Calming Words)

And in my own case, nothing promotes a good night's rest so well as the steady thrum of a diesel fishing boat engine.

But what do you do if there isn't a fishing boat or a vacuum cleaner nearby to generate the white noise you need to drift off? Enter the Dohm-DS Sound Conditioner.

Dohm-DS Sound Conditioner

One of the oldest players in the white noise making business is Marpac. The company's Dohm-DS Sound Conditioner is not much to look at, but it is wildly popular with Amazon shoppers (4.5 stars; 3300+ reviewers) and the National Sleep Foundation.

The Dohm-DS produces non-digital white noise via an internal fan and some adjustable air vents, which you can shift around for the sound you like best. What's it sound like? Rushing wind.

This isn’t just handy for insomniacs. Use it to drown out the noisy neighbor or office chatter. If music is too distracting, the machine can help provide a steady, rhythmic sound to boost productivity and creativity. (See also: How to Block Out Noise)

The Science Behind the Noise

What most of us refer to as white noise, sound engineers and other sound expert types have categorized into several different kinds (and sounds!) of noise, based on some mathematical descriptions of the energy and frequency of the sound waves. True white noise consists of every human audible frequency at the same energy level — kind of like white light consists of every visible color on the spectrum. Other colors of noise feature differing amounts of energy at different frequencies. Pink noise and brown noise are two common colors of noise many white noise apps and generators produce to help us concentrate or sleep. Pink sounds a little higher than plain white noise and brown sounds a little deeper.

Whatever its color, the white noise "drowns out" other sounds in the environment. More importantly, the sound waves "mask" other sound waves by matching their frequency and canceling them out. This is similar to the principle that allows noise-canceling headphones to work. The result is less sound reaching sleepers' ear drums, which means sleepers' brains can continue to relax and recuperate rather than respond to strange or alarming noises and waking the sleeper up. (See also: Top 5 Noise-Canceling Headphones)

Even better? Pink noise, such as falling rain or wind ruffling through the leaves, appears to slow and regulate brain waves, even when sleeping. This allows deeper, more restful sleep than simply blocking or masking other sounds.

White Noise Recordings

There are also all sorts of smartphone apps available, free and paid, that will generate noise in whatever style you prefer. There are also plenty of websites and YouTube videos that will play white noise for you, too, whether recorded from nature, made by machine, or both, such as the recording of the boat engine linked above, or a "recording" of the hum of the Starship Enterprise's mighty matter/antimatter engines. You can even find digital recordings of the soothing, masking noise of a simple desk fan or a box fan, if you don't happen to have either of the real thing handy.

Do you sleep better with white noise?

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Abigail

Our house has very thin walls and tile flooring. Sound echoed really well, and I could hear into the guest house in some spots. It was hard for me to sleep.

We bought a $3 app called Sleep Pillow (I think) about three years ago. It's wonderful. A ton of sounds. Obviously, we have to plug it into a speaker, but once it's on, my husband can listen to TV in the living room on a volume higher than 10. We're all pretty happy about that.

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Guest

totally. fans during the summer, old air conditioning in hotel rooms, and my humidifier. i don't have sleep problems, but these help me fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.