For those first few terrible seconds, I thought the world had ended. 

One moment I was blissfully asleep and the next I was wide awake in a black world heavy with unnerving silence. 

No whirring fan. No far-away song of crickets, no night birds singing, no wind blowing a lullaby through the trees outside. 

Yup. Clearly this was Armageddon and instead of trumpets announcing its coming, it was utter silence heralding the end. 

Only it wasn’t, of course. The power had simply gone out, killing the glorious white noise of the window fan I’d been using all my life to sleep. An amateur mistake, really. This was in a time before I advanced to the marvelous ‘Lectrofan, a life-changing gadget that offers 10 fan sounds, 10 white noise sounds and – most important of all – battery backup, so when the power goes out, the silence won’t lunge in like a storybook monster to yank you from sleep. 

“Sometimes,” as Erica Edwards, of South Woodstock, puts it, “the silence is too loud.”

Amen, lady.

THE SOUND OF SILENCE

Now, look here. Maybe you’re one of those perfectly ordinary people who sleeps in complete silence and you have no idea why anyone would want a machine humming in their ears all night while they’re trying to sleep. 

I get you, friend. In my fast and informal poll on the matter, I found that just about half the population prefers some form of noise when they go to sleep while the other half prefers silence. 

Just don’t go thinking of us noise-seekers as freaks, because in many ways, science is on our side. White noise, after all, is a combination of all the difference frequencies of sound playing at once. And as it turns out, those humming frequencies work pretty well for putting us to sleep and keeping us there. 

“White noise works by reducing the difference between background sounds and a ‘peak’ sound, like a door slamming, giving you a better chance to sleep through it undisturbed,” according to The Sleep Foundation. “If you have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, creating a constant ambient sound could help mask activity from inside and outside the house.” 

Brenda Colfer, of Farmingdale, makes a career out of these facts. She’s the owner and operator of Soundings, which offers services that include sound healing, vibrational sound therapy and whole bunch of exercises that involve music, singing crystal bowls, chanting, drums – and, of course, silence. 

Although Colfer herself enjoys the natural sounds outside her window, she understands why so many people turn to fans and gadgets to get their nightly sound fixes. 

Sound, she says, “shifts our brain. It changes things and takes us to a more relaxed state of being. I think you find that people have a hard time shutting off their thoughts. Sound gives them something for their mind to focus on, so it’s like this little meditation and they can relax and go to sleep.” 

I hear that. I’ve required some form of sound to sleep by as long as I can remember. Before I graduated to sound machines – my very first was the Dohm Classic Sound Machine, invented in 1962 by a traveling salesman who couldn’t fall asleep in quiet motel rooms – I relied on window fans, which leave you vulnerable to power outages and/or Armageddon. And which are cumbersome to use in the colder seasons. 

I’ve always wondered: Why do I so desperately need sound to sleep when so many others are content in silence? According to some of the responses to my survey, the answer may lie in your earliest sleep habits. 

“I remember going to St. Louis Church in New Auburn when I was a little one with my grandmother on a very hot ‘Day of Obligation,'” said Jim Palmer, now 66 and living in Lewiston. “It was very hot in the church and they had several fans operating. The ambient sound of the fans put me to sleep very quickly, much to Grammy’s horror! I was supposed to join in prayer with her but fell asleep.” 

Since that sweltering day in his youth, Palmer has been sold on the sound of a fan running any time he wants to sleep. Just try catching him snoozing without one. 

“We run an oscillating fan every night, 365 nights a year,” he said. “It creates a soothing white noise while providing moving air. No matter how cold it is outside, the fan runs every night. In the hot weather we supplement the fan with a window air conditioner.” 

Kelly Briggs, of Leeds, also learned to love white noise in childhood and like Palmer, she can’t get along without it. 

“I have been using a fan every night to sleep since good old 1998,” she said. “It originally started to block out the noise of my Dad watching TV at night when I was in middle school. ‘I have a test in the morning Dad!'” 

Michael Hanson is like me. He relied on fans before discovering the vast array of alternatives you can now find just about anywhere.  

“I think for most people it boils down to the white noise,” he said. “I think anyone currently using a fan or any device to make noise: Get a white noise machine. Every bedroom in our house has one. Fans are long gone except for the necessary summer weeks. . . . And if you don’t sleep alone and one of you hates the fan, a white noise machine is a wonderful compromise.” 

Roger that, Michael. But where to get one of these new-fangled sound machines for deep, uninterrupted sleep? 

It would be easier to ask where NOT to get one. 

Walmart has them. Home Depot has them, too, as does Lowe’s. Bed, Bath & Beyond has a whole bunch of them, and not just white noise machines, but fancy gadgets that also offer soft lights and an array of sounds that range from jungle birds to ocean waves, soft winds, thunderstorms, faraway trains or babbling brooks.  

With those, you’ll have to experiment a bit to see if there are any, uh… Side effects. 

“I use white noise on a sound machine and have for years,” said Sherry Spencer Wilbur, of Mechanic Falls. “I tried using the ‘running brook’ option but I had to keep getting up to go pee.” 

Shop for a sound machine on Amazon and you’ll be there for days. You can get something simple, like the Dohm Classic, or go big with something that has all the bells and whistles: timers, dimming lights, USB ports, you name it. 

Prices for these things range from $14 to about $100 for a model that offers 64 “rich and immersive, non-repeating sound environments for better sleep, relaxation, and sound masking.” 

Amazon is a good source for these gadgets because the reviews will tell you all you need to know about the device’s strengths and weaknesses.

Personally, I wouldn’t pay more than $50 for a sound machine – I spent $49 on the ‘Lectrofan – because bigger is not always better. A 64-sound gizmo seems impressive, but in the end, you’re really going to settle on just one or two. Just make sure what you buy offers “non-looping” sounds because, believe me: if the sounds loop or repeat, your brain will figure that out and will then obsess on the repeat patterns, making sleep impossible. 

Most of these devices offer both nature sounds and the much ballyhooed white noise – which, to the novice, sounds more or less like a standard fan, only you usually get to pick the precise pitch and volume. 

“Aside from the benefit of a better night’s sleep,” according to the online group Sound of Sleep, “white noise has shown promising results related to memory, tinnitus, and concentration, among many other things.”

Many devices also offer pink and brown noise – which sounds utterly absurd at first. Since when do sounds have colors? Have we all gone mad?

Pink noise is just a fancy term for white noise but with a reduction of the higher frequencies. It tends to sound like steady rain or wind and is considered by some to be more soothing than plain old white noise.  

Brown noise lowers the higher frequencies even more, making it sound a bit rougher than pink noise. Think of the sound of a roaring river or the hissing sound of television static, back in the days when channels went off the air for the night. 

COME ON, FEEL THE NOISE 

So, you’re stranded in some dinky motel in the middle of the nowhere and you forgot your fan and/or white noise machine at home? What to do? How will you sleep in all that silence? 

The Sun Journal’s beloved former sports writer Kal Oakes won’t hear of it. 

“My wife had a business trip to Bowling Green (Kentucky) last month,” said Oakes, who now works in Kentucky. “Two nights. I went with her. While she was working the second day, I made a five-hour round trip and crossed the Eastern/Central time line twice to retrieve my fan at home, because the one in the hotel was set by a thermostat to go on and off, and I slept like hot garbage as a result.” 

Don’t be like Kal. Save that gas money and simply open your smartphone or laptop. Get yourself on YouTube and find a video with exactly the kind of sound you sleep best to. And believe me, whatever sound gives you that fuzzy sleep feeling, it will be available on YouTube. 

Don’t believe me? Go to YouTube right now and type in “sleep sounds” and behold the universe of sounds at your disposal. See what I mean? It’s endless!

Here’s one that offers “rain & ocean sounds: 10 hours of white noise.” I haven’t listened to that one personally, but chances are good it loops somewhere in those ten hours, but in a span that long, your dozing brain might not be bothered by it. 

Another video offers “Tibetan Bowls and Epic Thunder and Rain!”

There are forest sounds, river sounds, the sounds of campfire crackling or cats purring. Maybe you like the steady hum of an airplane in flight. YouTube’s got you covered. 

Is it the steady tap-tap-tap of rain on a tent that sends you lolling into the arms of The Sandman? YouTube’s got it. It’s got everything, I tells you! Just remember that what works for some might not work for you.

“It is such a personal thing as to what sounds resonate for people,” said Colfer, the trained sound specialist. “I might like the sound of a bowl playing and go to sleep to that. For other people, that would drive them nuts.”

I went through a period recently where my two sound machines and window fan just weren’t cutting it. For whatever reason, my brain wanted to be further soothed at night as I sought to depart the clamor of the waking world and enter the sweet realm of sleep. I ended up finding the perfect solution on YouTube: the Stark theme from “Game of Thrones” set to a light wind and playing straight for three hours. I put my headphones on, set the soundtrack to repeat, and slept blissfully through the night, dreaming of dragons. 

You can also enter “white noise,” “pink noise” or “brown noise” into the search field and thousands of videos will come up. Or you can get really funky and take a plunge down the rabbit hole that is ASMR. 

What is that you ask? ASMR stands for “autonomous sensory meridian response,” and it’s a relatively new phenomenon that has taken YouTube by storm. 

The basic definition of ASMR goes like this: ” a feeling of euphoric tingling and relaxation that can come over someone when he or she watches certain body movements or hears certain sounds.” 

In other words, people get tingly when they watch somebody quietly reading the newspaper. Or filing their nails. Or thumbing through a photo album, chewing their food, sketching on a chalkboard, making paper roses or about a million other things that bring about, in some people, tingles and abject relaxation. 

There are YouTube creators with millions of followers who tune in just to watch that YouTuber eat, brush their hair or read a book. Things get weird in the ASMR world, but if you find that watching a dude from India review a bunch of dollar store items makes you tingle all sleepily, my friend, your problems are solved. 

DIAL ‘S’ FOR SLEEP

All you have is your phone to get through the night? No sweat. That’s all you need. 

The app stores for both Android and Apple are stuffed to the rafters with applications that provide sleep sounds, lullabies or whatever it is you need to sink into your pillow and go to sleep. 

On all of my Android phones so far, I’ve used Lightning Bug, a program so limitless in the number of tweaks and customizations you can make, it’s actually crippling in a way.

Lightning bug has roughly 200 sounds, including rain storms and ocean waves, pure white noise, city trains, meditation bells, acoustic and electronic instruments, and down-tempo break beats. But this app isn’t so much about the sounds as it is the way you mix them up.

It offers a whole bunch of plug-ins or packages you can install to get even more sound choices at your fingertips (I recommend the “Winter” pack, and don’t be stingy with the doves). Want the sound of a far-off coyote to go with your crackling fireplace? Simply add it to your Lightning Bug sound scheme and tell it when to howl and how loudly.

Sick of those blasted loons singing their lonely songs every 10 seconds? Limit it to just one loon and let it chime in only occasionally. 

A man can go mad getting his Lightning Bug sound scheme just right, but once it’s done, pure bliss is the result. Great for sleeping, great for meditation, just perfect if you like a little filler sound while you’re studying. 

There are far too many such apps to cover in this space. A visit to the Google Play or Apple stores will reveal more sound apps than you will ever be able to take out for a test drive. For what it’s worth, a colleague swears by “Relax Melodies” for his nighttime routine. The app creators claim that they collaborate with sleep experts to optimize their sound schemes for the perfect night’s sleep. 

In response to our query, we heard from people with all kinds of different sleep habits. Some like to go to sleep to the sounds of the television. Some listen to podcasts or radio news, and we even heard from one person who likes the sound of adult cartoons playing all night long.

Whatever floats your boat, bub.

A few mentioned binaural beats, a trick of sound which is described as an auditory illusion created when different tones are presented to each ear. Some say listening to binaural beats at night will make you smarter and more creative. Others claim only that it’s relaxing and will help clear your mind of the kind of clutter that keeps you awake.

When it comes to creating an environment for sleep, there are definitely different strokes for different folks. Whether you’re trying to create the perfect state of sleeping bliss or only blocking out the slamming doors, stomping feet and constant yammering from the neighbors upstairs, the options are pretty much endless.

If you’ve got questions or comments, by all means give me a call. Chances are good I won’t hear it, though – that ‘Lectrofan has a volume button, you know, and when I really don’t want to hear the rest of the world doing it’s thing, I crank it up pretty loud indeed.

Just leave a message, son. I’ll call you back when I’m better rested.


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