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I can’t remember the last time I slept without a fan. It’s a necessity. And no, it’s not because I’m a furnace in-between the sheets, causing my partner to kick me away subconsciously in the middle of the night (which happens). It’s not because I like the feeling of a gentle breeze tickling my face as I doze off. And it’s not even because I have some strange assumption that the circulation will keep my room from falling subject to two bodies’ morning breath stinking up the room. My fan is small, set to medium, and tucked in the corner of my room. It does not blow on me, and it does not provide me with a cooling effect. My fan is my white noise maker.

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Some of you may wonder why anyone would want noise when they are sleeping, especially when so many of us are awakened from our sweet slumber by noises foreign to the middle the night, when all things ought to be still. But I know I’m not the only one. I know plenty of people who actually have white noise makers, not even fans that double for the specific sound. I have one friend who has a noisemaker app on her phone, just in case she is in a place where there is no fan to help her out.

But if you ask me why I need the noise, I couldn’t really tell you. Am I scared of silence? I don’t think so. All I know is that I can’t fall asleep without it. So, what’s the deal?

Sleep Experts Weigh In

Sleep experts back mine and many others’ need for white noise as a means for sleeping, claiming that it is soothing. In fact, sleep expert David N. Neubauer, MD, who is an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, takes advantage of it himself. “I sleep with a bedside fan every night, no matter what the temperature. If the fan’s not on, I will definitely have difficulty falling asleep. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that white noise can be soothing because it blocks out sudden variations in sound—like a barking dog, or a car alarm—that can lighten our sleep or wake us. It also creates ventilation, and we know that people tend to sleep best in cooler temperatures — try keeping the room at a temp that you would describe as a little chilly when you’re not covered up. When I’m traveling, I often buy a small fan for the hotel room. It’s worth it to help block out unfamiliar noise and let me get the sleep I need.” But because there is a lack of data out there to support if these machines actually do help, is there actually a science behind why many of us swear by them?

Scientifically Speaking

Joseph Ojile, M.D., who is the medical director and chief executive officer of the Clayton Sleep Institute, attributes the need for white noise as a means to sleep for its ability to cancel out any other potential noise — essentially, it serves as an anti-noise mechanism. Think of all the other things you could be focusing on. Perhaps your partner fell asleep before you and is breathing deeply. The silence in the room makes it even more apparent, and it’s all you can focus on. Same goes for the steps of someone still awake walking around or outside your apartment building. Perhaps your cat is cleaning itself. These subtle noises overcome you, and keep you from drifting off into a deep sleep.

Similarly, Dr. Ralph Pascualy, who is the medical director of Northwest Hospital Sleep Center in Seattle, explains that random noises are to blame. He attributes this to our brains, which naturally desire sensory input, so when a sound occurs during your sleep, your brain can become activated, waking you from your slumber and making it harder to hit the hay once again. But the repetition of constant white noise “gives the brain a tonic signal that dampens its own internal systems.”

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But Which One Is Right For You?

I’m not all that advanced in the realm of white noise makers. I prefer to let my summer fan double as a device that cancels out other noises, but people have preferences, and luckily for them, manufacturers have, and continue to, oblige. Whether it’s the mimic of a fan you want minus the airflow, the sound of rain falling or a gentle breeze, there’s a little bit of something for everyone.

How Routine May Play A Part

As humans, we can’t help but view routine as a way of life. It gives us order and it gives us purpose, which is why it makes sense that, while we may assume we cannot go to sleep without our idea of a white noise maker, perhaps it’s more about following through with the routine we complete every night to hit that sweet spot on the pillow. “Your body likes to anticipate what’s going to happen,” explains  Christopher Winter, M.D., who is a fellow at the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the medical director at the sleep center at Martha Jefferson Hospital. “So if you always end your day by taking a hot shower, dimming your lights, and then turning on your noise machine, every night that your body does those things in that order at that time, it tells your brain sleep is coming up.”

Is White Noise Harmful?

I don’t like to use the word “addiction” so lightly, but, when I think about it, it is entirely difficult, if not impossible, for me to go to sleep without the calming sound of my fan. There’s not a sufficient amount of evidence that they are of any danger, however. In fact, studies have actually found the benefits of it. One study even concluded that wakefulness in intensive care units decreased when white noise was integrated with typical ICU noise.

So, it seems what it all comes down to is the notion that, as far as sleep goes, we become accustomed to what we consider general background sounds until some sound becomes worthy of stirring our brains. It’s about types of sounds as opposed to the volume of them, which explains why we can doze off in the middle of an action flick in the movie theater. And if white noise makers keep you snoozing, why mess with a good thing? Sleep is an important and necessary commodity, so do what works.

Image: Mind Body Green

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