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Cutting through the white noise

Are white noise machines effective?
Are white noise machines effective? 02:45

From L.A. to Chicago to New York, noise is one big reason why 1 in 3 American adults doesn't get enough sleep, thanks to noisy neighbors, ambulances, fire engines or garbage trucks at 3 o'clock in the morning.

Psychologist Matthew Ebben learned all about noisy nights years ago when he bought an apartment in Queens, New York. "It was unbelievably loud," he said. Not only was his bedroom a half-block away from the Long Island Railroad, but "there was a bus that went up a hill in front of the apartment, and there was an ambulance that liked to park across the street," he said. "It was torture."

A desperate man who didn't want to move, he turned to a white noise machine, which emits more noise: "It's the sound of a fan, it's the sound of an air conditioner," he said. "So, if you have a constant noise which is a little louder than these intrusions, you won't be woken up by the intrusions."

The paradox of combatting too much noise with even more noise intrigued Ebben, a sleep specialist at Weill Cornell Medicine/New York-Presbyterian. His research confirmed white noise's potential benefits. "What we found in our study is, [subjects] slept more, in general, with the white noise maker than without it, and they also fell asleep a bit faster," Ebben said.

At his offices, Spencer sampled an array of machines, emitting everything from basic white noise (sounding like a fan), to so-called "pink noise," which uses lower frequencies, and which some research suggests can help with memory. ("That sounds like the ocean," said Spencer.)

A white noise machine.  CBS News

And then there were a bunch of other random noises, from tropical forests and rainfall, to what sounds like a beating heart. "I wouldn't use that," Ebben laughed.

But white noise is often just what the doctor ordered – a lullaby for adults.

Pleasant dreams.

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Story produced by Amiel Weisfogel. Editor: Carol Ross. 

More on sleep from Susan Spencer: 

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