July 8, 2019
Photos by Todd Midler
Falling asleep has always been hard for me. When I was in middle school, I needed to take my iPod to sleepovers. It was like a metaphorical comfort blanket; protecting me from unfamiliar environments. Taylor Swift’s self titled album offered the perfect to a friend’s itchy comforter, or the tinny drawl of their meowing cat. Now, in adulthood, my trouble with sleeping isn’t reserved only for foreign environments—the affliction has followed me to my own bedroom.
One of the few things I’ve found dependably calming before bed is the sound of nature. When I started regularly having trouble falling asleep, I looked for ocean sounds on Spotify, knowing that spas leaned on them for that mysteriously blissful ambiance. I was shocked at how reliably they put me down, and felt a little ridiculous for needing them in the first place. If most people can get to sleep without the aid of Soothing Ocean Waves for Dreaming, why couldn’t I? Moreover, why was seaside ambiance, specifically, my optimal lullaby?
As I became more and more accustomed to queueing up a nightly nature album, I started talking to my friends about their sleeping habits.
I was stunned, and admittedly relieved, to learn that I wasn’t totally alone in the struggle for some shut-eye–few of my friends regularly sleep without difficulty. The majority said they relied on some kind of routine to get them ready for bed, and a couple had even been diagnosed with insomnia. My situation wasn’t quite that dire, but these conversations helped me realize that sleep issues needn’t be something to hide. It was time to come out of the linen closet.
During my ‘qualitative’ surveying, I did find out, horrified, that a few friends were totally comfortable letting their phone notifications beep and buzz all throughout the night (my literal nightmare). To ease my resentment, I found solace in random nature album reviews that strangers wrote on Amazon. Beautiful odes by a community of people who took dramatic gusts of wind just as seriously as I did: “If that hiss [of wind] could be filtered out I would give it five stars,” says one customer on the product page of Ocean Waves: Calming Sounds of the Sea. “This CD goes on and I go out,” another said about Bliss - Exceptional Nature Sounds.
I tried to pinpoint what exactly was making it so difficult for me to sleep, and it became clear that what was bothering me wasn’t an uncomfortable bed, noisy neighbors, light beaming in through my curtains, or anything external from myself, for that matter. It was an even more common problem—overthinking. Turning off the lights seemed to trigger my brain into action; like a bored kid who has just heard the recess bell and legged it, screaming, outside. In that pitch blackness, I’d randomly start considering the ethics of bringing a dog on a walk with you if the time it’ll spend outside of a cafe waiting outweighs the time it’ll spend walking, or whether any celebrities ran their own Instagram accounts or if they all had assistants for that express purpose. In other words, my mind favored meaningless controversy over stillness.
Whenever I tried to listen to ‘normal’ music at bedtime, I wound up thinking about whether or not the singer was a good person, or if Lizzo was too upbeat a wind-down choice. My nighttime thoughts were almost entirely out of my control, but somehow, sticking to a nature sound playlist has managed to tamper them. The earth’s cracks and creaks have been considered natural ASMR for hundreds of years, but I couldn’t understand why they were so soothing for me, while manufactured sound was so disruptive. It seemed only logical that the lapping water should entice me to think about a tropical vacation, or that crickets chirping would take me back to creepy suburban walks.
It turns out, a group of researchers at Brighton and Sussex Medical School had already undertaken a study revealing the calming effects of nature sounds. The researchers monitored the brain activity and heart rate of 17 healthy adults, looking into how they reacted to natural sounds versus artificial sounds, like music or noise on the street, while doing various tasks. Within their findings, they found that artificial sounds promoted inward-focused thoughts, but natural sounds encouraged outward-focused thoughts. In other words, a focus on other, rather than self. This would explain why listening to music brought up personal memories and anxieties, while nature sounds managed to mitigate them.
Another researcher, Orfeu Buxton, who’s a professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State University, came to a more primal conclusion on the topic. Sounds, like alarms or phones ringing, demand our attention and are interpreted as “threats” by our brains. But natural noises aren’t. “These slow, whooshing noises are the sounds of non-threats, which is why they work to calm people,” Buxton told Live Science in 2016. “It’s like they’re saying: ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry, don’t worry.’”
I had wondered why familiarity was so important to me when trying to find a song to calm me down at those childhood sleepovers, yet I could listen to any old nature album and go straight to sleep. Buxton’s findings explain that it’s not so much about the recognition of specific patterns, or even the sound itself. Rather, it’s about how the brain interprets and classifies a given noise.
When you consider the anxieties of modern times, and the amplifying effects of social media, it’s no surprise that our brains are on high alert at the end of every day. As needy as it might seem to rely on the recorded sound of a waterfall or a rain storm at bedtime, to me it’s worth it for a reliably restful sleep. While it’s difficult to deny a phone’s paradoxical ability to disturb a sleep schedule, I’m eternally thankful that mine can bring an essential part of the natural world into my apartment each night.