The crash of ocean waves, a babbling brook, the pitter-patter of rain on the roof — many people swear by these watery sounds to help them fall asleep and stay in la-la land. Why does flowing "agua" have such a powerful and popular drowsing effect?
Humans are undeniably connected to water. Part of the answer lies in how our brains interpret the noises we hear — both while awake and in the dead of night — as either threats or non-threats.
Certain sounds, such as screams and loud alarm clocks, babies crying, and cats or dogs barfing can hardly be ignored. Yet other sounds, like the wind in the trees and waves lapping the shore, we sort of tune out.
"These slow, whooshing noises are the sounds of non-threats, which is why they work to calm people," said Orfeu Buxton, an associate professor of biobehavioral health at Pennsylvania State University. "It's like they're saying: 'Don't worry, don't worry, don't worry.'"
Louder noises in general, as we've all experienced, tend to be harder to sleep through. But perhaps even more important than volume is the character of a sound in how it can trigger the brain's so-called threat-activated vigilance system -- and jolt us from slumber.
"The type of noise defines if you will wake up or not, controlling for the volume, because the noise information is processed by our brain differently," Buxton said.
For instance, although the sounds of crashing waves can vary considerably in volume, with quiet intervals followed by crescendos, the waves' hubbub smoothly rises and falls in intensity. That's in stark contrast to a scream or a ringing phone suddenly piercing a silence, reaching peak loudness almost instantly.
Another reason watery sounds can help us sleep? Non-threatening noises, especially when relatively loud, can drown out those sounds that might otherwise raise red flags in the brain's threat-activated vigilance system.
"Having a masking form of noise can also help block other sounds you don't have control over, whether someone is flushing a toilet in another part of the house, or there are taxis or traffic outside — whatever the acoustic insult is," Buxton said.
All of this makes it understandable as to why water-themed sleep aids have proved so popular over the decades, across media ranging from cassettes to compact disks to MP3s to the mobile device apps of today.
Real or Faux?
The best sleep aid of all, in our humble opinion, is having your windows open to hear an actual waterfall or babbling brook. If you happen to live by the ocean, then that will suffice in a pinch. LOL!
So, if you really want a better night’s sleep, consider adding some live water to your outdoor environment where you can open the window at night and enjoy the real thing, instead of your sound machine.
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