How listening to pink noise can aid your sleep: Expert offers verdict on the science behind the sounds and finds listening to them really can help us
The sound is a gentle roar — a bit like a distant waterfall, or the wind rushing past your car windows on a long drive. It’s continuous, fuzzy and surprisingly soothing.
Welcome to ‘brown noise’ — the latest trend for helping improve your concentration.
While most of us have heard of white noise — that blizzarding static sound that you used to get on TV channels when they were out of service — brown noise consists of lower-frequency, deeper sounds.
It’s wildly popular on social media as a study aid — on apps such as TikTok, videos of people hearing brown noise for the first time have received millions of views.
Adherents gush about profound feelings of peace, while some with ADHD claim it concentrates their thinking more even than medication.
It’s not just brown or white noise; there’s ‘pink’ noise, said to help you fall asleep and sleep longer; and ‘binaural beats’, to help concentration and anxiety.
It’s wildly popular on social media as a study aid — on apps such as TikTok, videos of people hearing brown noise for the first time have received millions of views
But while we might be interested in the idea that different sounds could improve our attention, mood and productivity, ‘it is important to find out what the real impact is on the brain’, says Nilli Lavie, a professor of psychology and brain sciences at University College London.
So what is the science behind these sounds — all readily available for free on YouTube — and can they really help us? Professor Lavie offers her verdict while I try them out to see if noise does anything for my concentration.
The sound is a gentle roar — a bit like a distant waterfall, or the wind rushing past your car windows on a long drive. It’s continuous, fuzzy and surprisingly soothing. Welcome to ‘brown noise’ — the latest trend for helping improve your concentration
This is a familiar sound, a ‘shhh’ similar to a hair dryer. It was identified by engineers back in the 1920s and includes all frequencies audible to the human ear, ie, between 20 Hertz and 20,000 Hertz — a very low organ pipe might produce a 20-Hertz sound, while a dog whistle can be 20,000 Hertz.
This span is why it’s called ‘white’ noise, in a nod to light, which turns white when all the light frequencies are in a single beam.
Professor Lavie says there are ‘some studies’ showing it improves attention, both for those with ADHD and everyone else, too. ‘And there’s an excellent explanation,’ she adds. ‘White noise contains all the frequencies of sound intermixed, so it helps to camouflage peripheral sounds really well. Attention is better focused when there isn’t an attention-capturing distraction — white noise will help to tune those out. There is a compelling case to be made for its efficacy, with a good mechanism behind it.’
My verdict: To test out white noise’s concentration-boosting powers, I put some on while sitting at my kitchen table to write. There are lots to choose from online, some running for ten hours or more and clearly intended to be used at night. I find that I do feel more focused. Perhaps the white noise filters out the background noises — like my cat’s claws on the kitchen floor — that momentarily distract my focus.
This span is why it’s called ‘white’ noise, in a nod to light, which turns white when all the light frequencies are in a single beam
Like white noise, pink noise contains all the frequencies detectable to humans. The difference is that the higher frequencies are deliberately toned down, ie quietened.
This should mean that pink noise might be particularly effective for masking higher-frequency noises — for example, the annoyingly shrill beep of a car alarm — because the lower frequency sounds are relatively more intense in the pink noise.
Professor Lavie says: ‘Pink noise changes the amount of sound energy — simply put, the intensity of the volume — inversely to the frequency. So it makes higher-frequency sounds appear quieter.
‘It’s interesting, although there hasn’t been as much solid research into it as there has with white noise. It may sound more pleasant to some people than white noise due to this dampening of the higher frequencies. And it might be worth trying if you know you specifically want to mask higher-pitched sounds.’
My verdict: Like light rainfall, this is less harsh than white noise but has a similarly cocooning effect. I try it around 3.30pm when I know children leave the nearby primary school — a reliably high-pitched time of day — and it works well.
The popularity of brown noise may be recent, but it’s actually named after Robert Brown, a Scottish botanist who, in 1827, discovered ‘Brownian motion’ — the random movement made by pollen grains suspended in water, observed under a microscope.
Brown noise mimics this oscillation, with sound signals that change randomly from one moment to the next, producing an overall impression of static — and supposedly improving concentration. Some users describe it as ‘life-changing’.
Professor Lavie says: ‘Brown noise is like an exaggerated pink noise. So while pink noise lowers the intensity of high frequencies to make it sound quieter, brown noise does it, too, but in a more extreme way — so the impression that’s left is of only low frequency and bass-heavy notes.’
As a result, the sound is even lower and more rumbly than pink noise. Like pink noise, it will be potentially helpful in screening out high-pitched noises, and some fans argue that it can actually be more effective for falling asleep.
My verdict: This sounds even more comforting than pink or white noise. It’s deeper, like a strong wind, which helps me feel particularly cosy and focused in front of my laptop.
For these, you need a pair of headphones. That’s because binaural beats are produced when two slightly different sound frequencies are played in each ear, and your brain then splits the difference.
For example, if your right ear is hearing 400 Hertz and your left ear is hearing 410 Hertz, then your binaural beat comes in around 10 Hertz. But this sound only exists in your own brain — it’s an auditory illusion. This — so fans say — is where the magic comes in. Instead of hearing two competing sounds, your brain creates its own sound, which is heard as a rhythmic beat rather than a continuous sound.
‘The brain is “tricked” to perceive these as one sound coming from an intermediate location, and the difference in frequency is what creates the perception of beats,’ explains Professor Lavie. She says there is some research to suggest that listening to binaural beats may improve attention. ‘The hypothesis is that this method entrains the brain to produce brain waves at the same frequency as the sound it perceives, and sometimes it seems to work.’
By stimulating particularly beneficial brain waves, binaural beats are supposed to boost cognitive and emotional function — potentially improving memory and attention, reducing anxiety and fostering good sleep.
‘This is entirely different from the masking mechanism of white noise,’ says Professor Lavie. ‘There has been research to measure brain waves while people perform a task that requires focused attention — listening to binaural beats — which did show a brain entrainment effect, but overall, the studies are far from conclusive.’ There are also some people who claim binaural beats should be treated with caution, precisely because of their effect on brain waves.
My verdict: Binaural beats fans suggest listening to them for 45 minutes before concentrating. I try this with my mangled old headphones. It sounds noticeably like a vibrating bell, and the effect is remarkable — I get goosebumps while listening and feel notably clearheaded when I work.
Overall verdict: The binaural beats had the most perceptible impact on my state of mind, but they are less of a background noise — so I think I might use these before starting work on something and then use brown noise as I found it the most soothing.
Professor Lavie says: ‘When you find ways that help you concentrate, it can feel as though you’ve hit the jackpot. Our research shows that people feel happier when they can concentrate.’
By stimulating particularly beneficial brain waves, binaural beats are supposed to boost cognitive and emotional function — potentially improving memory and attention, reducing anxiety and fostering good sleep
Old drugs, new tricks
New uses for existing medicines. This week: Colchicine
This compound has been used as medicine for more than 3,000 years and is found in the autumn crocus plant. It was first developed as a treatment for gout in the 18th century.
Taken as a tablet during gout attacks, colchicine dampens down the inflammation caused by crystals of uric acid that accumulate in the joints, easing the pain.
But while it is still only licensed in the UK to treat gout, doctors have been using it for years to combat pericarditis — inflammation of the sac-like covering that surrounds the heart, which causes chest pain and breathlessness.
In the late 1980s, doctors in Spain — aware of colchicine’s anti-inflammatory properties — successfully experimented with it in three pericarditis patients who had otherwise failed to recover. After this, the drug found favour among cardiologists for the condition.
A 2014 study at the Maria Vittoria Hospital in Italy found giving patients with pericarditis colchicine not only helped them recover more quickly but halved the risk of the condition recurring.
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