Listening to white noise

Not Just for Sleeping: White Noise Can Improve Your Hearing

Do you have trouble sleeping? Do you turn on relaxing sounds before bed? White noise is used by many to drift off to dreamland at night with machines and even smartphone applications replicating the noise, but a new study by the University of Basel has found that white noise may be able to do much more than help you catch some Z’s. Though it is essentially an extra background noise, researchers have concluded that it can make hearing pure sounds more precise, a realization with the possibility of aiding in the future development of cochlear implants.

How Is White Noise Special?

Most of us associate white noise with the sound an old television set makes without a signal, but white noise is far different than other noise. By definition, white noise is described as a random signal made up of sounds from all the frequencies the human ear can hear, but at the same exact intensity. How does that help you sleep and hear? Since it is created from all of the frequencies the ear and brain can perceive, no sound is uniquely distinct, turning everything you hear into a blurred “hissing” or “shushing” sound. This continuous sound makes it much easier for us to sleep through things such as a door slamming or a ringing phone, as they are folded into the blur and muffled. Next time you put on white noise before going to bed, remember that you are hearing every sound from every frequency between 20Hz to 20,000Hz all at once.

University of Basel’s Findings

Your brain has an extraordinary ability to pick out relevant information from less relevant background noise thanks to an area that processes auditory stimuli called the auditory cortex. Led by Professor Dr.Tania Rinaldi Barkat from the Department of Biomedicine, the University of Basel’s team investigated sound perception and sound discrimination in a challenging sound environment.
Past studies have concluded that the distinction between sounds becomes more difficult the closer they are in frequency, which led researchers to believe that introducing white noise would make the task even more challenging. Despite their beliefs, the opposite was observed, with research concluding that “the brain’s ability to distinguish subtle tone differences improved when white noise was added to the background. Compared to a quiet environment, the noise thus facilitated auditory perception.” But how?

White Noise Reduced Neuronal Activity

Data presented by the group had found that white noise reduced the activity of the nerve cells in the auditory cortex by a significant margin. In contradictory fashion, this inhibition of the neuronal activity led to a more precise perception of pure tones. We found that less overlap occurred between populations of neurons during two separate tone representations,” stated Dr. Barkat. “As a result, the overall reduction in neuronal activity produced a more distinct tone representation.”

This Conclusion May Help In The Future

According to Dr. Barkat, it is possible that cochlear implants could use an effect similar to white noise in order to improve the frequency resolution and in turn, the hearing of their users. To determine whether white noise may help you, speak to a hearing health professional about possible options.

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