What is white noise and are there any harmful effects of white noise that we should be aware of?
Well yes and no. It all depends on the individual’s response to noise in general and how you expose yourself to it.
What Is White Noise?
By using colour we can describe different kinds of light. Similarly, we can use colour to describe differing noise types.
Just as White Light is an evened out distribution of all the wave-lengths of light that a human can see within our range of everyday normal vision, White Noise is an evened out distribution of all the sound frequencies within the range of normal human hearing.
White noise is like a constant “shussh” sound – of the type you would get from an old fashioned TV set when the programs went off the air.
Maybe that’s why so many people fell asleep in front of the TV at the end of the night. After all, the major benefit and selling point of white noise machines has been to promote natural falling asleep and staying asleep.
How Does White Noise Work?
Where we use a white noise machine to help us sleep or concentrate, we say that it masks out other sounds. So how does it do that?
One of the things that disturbs us, keeps us awake, or breaks our concentration is the mind noticing changes in the background sound of the environment we are in.
No doubt during the stone-age, or any other time man had to defend himself, this ability helped keep our ancestors alive. It would alert them to the faint sound made by a predator or the enemy creeping through the woodland.
However, in the relative peace of the urban jungle, becoming alert to every tiny noise can be a problem, especially when it keeps us awake or constantly snaps us out of our concentration.
White noise changes the background sound and the level.
It creates an overall level of sound that is not only louder than the background noise but featureless. Therefore, the overall threshold which other noise must pass across in order to be noticed is higher, and because white noise is also featureless it doesn’t present any details or distractions for the mind to latch onto and be distracted.
In other words the mind becomes attuned to this louder but featureless background droning noise.
The net result of this is that white noise has a soothing quality and allows the mind to relax because it is only focused on to the bland featureless background noise, and not all the mish-mash of car horns, sirens, aircraft and dogs barking.
That is why it is so good for promoting both concentration during work time, and sleep promotion when we retire at night (or during the day if you are a night worker)
What are the harmful effects of white noise?
This very much depends on the volume you have the white noise set at.
According to a July 2009 article in Cerebral Cortex magazine early prolonged exposure to white noise might impair the brain’s ability to perceive the geographic location of the sound.
“Early continuous white noise exposure in infants alters auditory spatial sensitivity.”
According to WebMD, a study by Shanghai based researchers suggests that exposing infants to continuous white noise — (commonly done to soothe or drown out other noises)– may delay hearing and possibly language development.
The researchers reared infant rat pups using a background of continuous white noise. They found that neurons in the auditory cortex which are responsible for spatial sensitivity were impaired by delayed development of the brain’s hearing centre.
What are the benefits?
It’s not all bad. Here are some interesting benefits that are associated with white noise, a few you should know about.
White noise makes babies feel relaxed –
Despite the study on rat pups, babies are familiar with white noise, being exposed to it in the womb. (This might be the constant heart beat of the mother, or the swishing noise of blood pumping around her body). If your baby tends to wake up with the slightest noise, they might be missing their soothing background noise.
Therefore, introducing white noise may help them sleep longer even when there are other background sounds going on.
Masks tinnitus –
Many reports suggest that white noise helps with the suffering of tinnitus by masking the sound and giving the sufferer a different sound to focus on. Those who have tinnitus claim that playing white noise helps them fall asleep at night and gives them respite from the constant screeching or ringing in the ears.
According to the National Institutes of Health, white noise machines can be very efficient at this to the point where individuals using white noise machines might become unaware of their tinnitus condition.
However, it’s important for sufferers to remember that while many individuals experience brief tinnitus because of loud ambient noises, frequent or prolonged tinnitus can reflect a larger problem such as high blood pressure or anaemia.
White Noise Conclusion
White noise has the ability to block other sounds that tend to disturb you when you sleep. Just make sure that it is at a reasonable level.
Whether you are aiming for pure white noise or generated sounds, this type of noise can be useful to help you get a good night’s rest.
As with any other condition, if you find that the symptoms are prolonged, or you have to keep increasing the level of treatment to achieve the same effect, then visit your health practitioner for an expert opinion.