Want to get a better night's sleep? You may just need more noise. While that may sound counterintuitive, it's scientifically proven that certain types of noise can help you catch some zzz's.
Think of it this way: When you're lying in bed, every single noise — from the creak of the bed to a whistle in your partner's nose — may keep your brain on high alert. But some types of noise, specifically white, pink and Brown noise, can muffle and mask these sounds, creating a more consistent ambient background.
You've probably heard of white noise and seen related products that are intended to help people sleep. And although white noise is the popular choice for sleep, pink and Brown noise may help you sleep better.
To understand why, you need to know a bit more about the differences between these types of noise.
Just as white light includes all of the colors of light in the spectrum, white noise contains sounds from all of the frequencies that humans can hear. The sounds come together to sound like a fuzzy hiss of static — like the snow on the TV back when televisions did that sort of thing. (You can hear that familiar sound in the video below — but don't get sucked in; it's 10 hours long!)
It's an amalgamation of sounds from all frequencies, but white noise comes across as a high-pitched buzz. That's because of the way your ears hear it. There's a lot of complicated science involved, but basically, your brain amplifies sounds in the higher pitch frequencies, making them sound louder than they actually are. So while you may be hearing sounds from a variety of frequencies, the highest ones tend to drown out the lower pitched notes.
And it's not just helpful for sleep. Recent research has found that white noise might improve hearing. Researchers from the University of Basel in Switzerland found that with a background of continuous white noise, hearing pure sounds becomes more precise. This could be applied to the better development of cochlear implants, the researchers said in their findings, which were published in the journal Cell Reports.
Pink noise takes the human tendency to hear only some frequencies into account and balances out the noise so that all frequencies are heard equally. The higher the frequency, the more its volume is dampened. To your ears, the sound is deeper and softer than white noise, as you can hear in the video below. Think of rain falling on the pavement or a gentle breeze in the trees.
In a study at China's Peking University, researchers found that when participants were exposed to either pink noise or no noise during nighttime sleep and naps, 75% reported more restful sleep with the pink noise. Brain activity monitors confirmed this, showing that participants had 23% more restful brain activity at night with pink noise and 45% more restful sleep during naps.
Brown noise takes this concept to the next level, further dampening noise at higher frequencies to produce an even deeper, richer sound. Think of a roaring waterfall or evenly crashing ocean waves. It's not named after the color brown but rather after the botanist Robert Brown, who in the 1800s discovered random particle motion, also called Brownian motion. Brown, or Brownian, noise is similar to random particle motion in that the changes in sound signals from one moment to the next occur randomly. You can hear it in the video below.
It's worth mentioning that Brown noise is not related to the hypothetical brown note — a low-frequency sound that was once thought to cause people to lose control of their bowels. Fortunately, that myth has since been debunked.
When it comes right down to it, the color of noise that will help you sleep most soundly is the one you like the best. While pink and Brown noise are deeper and more balanced than white noise, your personal sleep preferences will dictate which one gives you the best night's sleep.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was published in September 2016.