Improve your memory while you sleep: A look at the use of “white noise” to help consolidate memory

In a time with an ever-growing dependency on technology, even your sleep cannot escape–but this may not be a bad thing. Research shows that sleeping with white noise can actually improve memory consolidation (Ngo, Martinetz, Born, & Molle, 2013).


What is “white noise”?

White noise is a noise whose amplitude is constant throughout the audible frequency range. It is called white noise because like white light is comprised of all color lights together, white noise is comprised of all sound frequencies coming together. Although true white noise can only be created electronically and is unvarying and unobtrusive such as that of television static or a fan-noise, the term white noise is sometimes used as a general description for any kind of constant background noise and has become a blanket term for a wide variety of “sleep sounds” including that of nature or ambient soundscapes. These sounds are commonly found on the wide range of sound machines available for purchase (National Sleep Foundation, 2015; No Sleepless Nights, 2015).

Why are these sound machines popular?

marpac-dohm-dsAlthough each individual experiences a difference in sound sensitivity while sleeping, one commonality found is that sudden sounds, whether loud or soft, have a tendency to wake people up. White noise machines work by reducing the difference between background sounds and some kind of a “peak” sound, like a door slamming, or a baby crying, allowing one the ability to have a better chance to sleep through the night undisturbed. These machines have a growing popularity for those with difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, because they offer a variety of sounds to create a constant “relaxing” sound to help mask activity from inside and outside the house (National Sleep Foundation, 2015; No Sleepless Nights, 2015).

OK GREAT! –but how does this improve my memory?

In the human brain neurons are activated together creating the traditional rise and fall of activity,  (the lines) we see in an EEG. These movements are

An individual setup for an EEG sleep study.

known as oscillations. Brain activity varies at different times of the day, and when you are sleeping, the brain oscillates in slow waves. Ngo and colleagues (2013) found that individuals who listened to white noise while sleeping remembered twice as many word associations than individuals who did not listen to white noise while sleeping. In monitoring brain waves with EEG while sleeping, it was also found that the sound stimuli actually boosted the ongoing slow-wave oscillations. This boost in slow-wave oscillations suggest that sound stimulation while sleeping could not only boost memory, but it might also help people sleep better.

What if any sounds do you sleep with?

Do you have any other sleep dependencies?

Do you think you’ll try sleeping with white noise now that you know of the added benefits?

Can you sleep with varying noises?

Do you find yourself easily disturbed in your sleep?

Do you have a white-noise machine? Do you think you’ll look into getting one with what you know now?


National Sleep Foundation (2015). Hear: Sound & Sleep.

Ngo, H. V., Martinetz, T., Born, J., & Molle, M. (2013). Auditory closed-loop stimulation of the sleep slow oscillation enhances memory. Neuron, 78(3), 545-553. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2013.03.006

No Sleepless Nights (2015). What is White Noise & What’s all the Fuss about?

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