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Science Supports Your Habit of Falling Asleep to Stupid Podcasts

There are so many trash podcasts, and so many people who need to sleep; why not bring them together?

by Hannah Smothers
Nov 7 2019, 12:00pm

George Marks via Getty

I never found sound machines to be effective sleep aids. I didn’t grow up in a rainforest or adrift on a raft at sea. Chirping birds and lapping waves aren’t “natural” noises to my urban ears; there’s nothing “soothing” about those sounds. But two years ago, I found a source of white noise that’s extremely calming to my heathen brain, and lulls me to sleep every single time: Bachelor-franchise gossip podcasts.

I stumbled into this rich supply of content after getting hooked on the series a few years ago. I was always vaguely aware that these shows exist (starting a podcast and doing spon-con are the two requisites for Bachelor alumni), but while I liked the personalities on the show, I didn’t think I’d care much for them spewing unedited thoughts and opinions right against my eardrums. Mostly I was right: Listening to a show hosted by a Bachelor alum is like eating Cookie Crisp for breakfast—super fun, but like, nutritionally kinda useless. Or that’s what I thought until I discovered an off-label use for the podcasts, which is using them to fall asleep.

At this point, there are many purpose-driven sleep podcasts available. The most famous and prolific one is probably Sleep With Me, launched by its host Drew Ackerman (or Dearest Scooter, as listeners know him) in 2013. Others have since sprung into the extremely fertile market for beating insomnia—a common sleep condition that affects somewhere in the wide range of 10–50 percent of the population. There are ambient noise podcasts, bedtime stories for grownups, meditation podcasts with dedicated sleep guides, a whole host of ASMR shows, and then purposely meandering podcasts like Sleep With Me.

There’s not any published science on how podcasts like Ackerman’s work, per se, but there are preliminary studies that show positive correlations between listening to white, pink, or brown noise (all variations of the same, droning thing) and sleep. A 2005 study in Sleep Medicine found that white noise helped people stay asleep when exposed to recorded sounds from a noisy ICU. Most of the related theories around sleeping with background noise fall along this finding: A baseline level of soft, mundane noise makes it more difficult for sleepers to be jolted awake by sudden, abnormal sounds (like a car honking outside, or a phone buzzing).

A human voice isn’t traditionally thought of as white noise, but I wonder why not? The technical definition is “a heterogenous mixture of sound waves extending over a wide frequency range.” But the cultural, colloquial one tends to mean a sound so mundane, your brain doesn’t even register it—like a news broadcast playing in the background, or the ambient noises that fill an office. All of these descriptions certainly apply to Ackerman’s podcast, as well as the slew of ASMR and whisper shows that market as sleep aids.

Craig Richard, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at Shenandoah University and the author of Brain Tingles, a book about ASMR, told VICE that human-voiced podcasts are just the latest thing people are using as technological sleep aids. It makes sense; while not everyone is likely to go out and buy a noise machine, almost everyone has access to podcasts, via their phones. Richard, who records two sleep shows of his own, has done rudimentary, anecdotal research and identified four pillars that make a show successful for sleeping: A calm host voice; focused attention on the listener; kindness (meaning the listener doesn’t get mad at the host, because anger is apparently an arousing emotion); and generally banal content (a pillar my Bachelor podcasts fulfill with ease).

Because Ackerman was first on the sleep podcast scene, he learned what makes a successful show for falling asleep via trial and error. He knows not to talk about spiders, snakes, lizards, or anything you might imagine crawling around, for instance. He also steers clear of more serious scary things like politics, money, health, and flying. Ackerman told VICE he primarily sticks to meandering, low-stakes stories that can be listened to and followed along with, but also have an uncanny ability of carrying thousands of fans to sleep. The most recent publicly available stats for Sleep With Me, from 2016, put the podcast’s regular listeners above 70,000.

“I’m trying to maintain just enough interest so that people don’t go back to whatever is running in their head, whether it’s work or personal stuff,” Ackerman said, naming the two biggest things that keep me and countless other adults awake at night. It’s essentially artful distraction; mimicking the cadence of your most boring high school teacher—only now, you’re encouraged to fall asleep during the lecture.

Richard, who’s partnered with Ackerman and is familiar with Sleep With Me, said Ackerman’s show employs all four of those things, which is why it’s so successful. But they can certainly be found outside of the realm of podcasts that are branded specifically, as sleep aids. “The key trait—whether it’s a whisper podcast, Drew [Ackerman]’s podcast, or a gossip or reality show podcast—is distraction,” Richard said. “You’re distracting your mind from the stressful thoughts that raise your alertness.”

The same is true of white noise, nature sounds, and audio books; what works for one person may not work for another. For me, it’s meandering, hour-plus long shows hosted by reality TV stars. I ran Richard’s four pillar diagnostics on my personal collection of “sleep” podcasts and they held up surprisingly well: The hosts are *mostly* calm (barring extreme drama that simply must be discussed enthusiastically); they seem more or less focused on me, the listener; they’re generally kind (though I had a temporary beef with one over a bad opinion, and had to banish his show from my bedroom); and the content is certainly banal. If all I listened to were these podcasts, I’d never know that #MeToo happened, that the president is Donald Trump (or that the United States is even governed by a president), or that climate change is coming for us all. That’s a dangerous way to live, but a blissful way to fall asleep.

Sleep doctors broadly advise against keeping a phone near the bed, but Rajkumar Dasgupta, a sleep doctor and assistant professor of Clinical Medicine at the University of Southern Caliornia’s Keck School of Medicine, told VICE he increasingly hears that his insomnia patients are using podcasts to fall asleep. His opinion is that this is fine, and is certainly easier than turning to habit-forming sleep pills. He’s even OK with my practice of falling asleep to celebrity gossip. It may be rotting my brain—like the inverse of what’s supposed to happen when babies are exposed to Mozart, or whatever—but at least it’s getting me to sleep.

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