Many people own white noise machines. You may listen to it to fall asleep, or you may use it to help your young child sleep. This is because white noise is a combination of sounds of all different frequencies. Because it includes so many different frequencies, white noise is ideal for masking other sounds.
For example, white noise may be used outside of offices where sensitive, confidential conversations take place. The white noise helps to mask the voices and keep information private. This same property is why white noise is often used to help you sleep—you are less sensitive to outside sounds that may otherwise disturb your sleep.
However, new research shows that white noise can do more than mask other sounds and help you sleep. Researchers led by Prof. Dr. Tania Rinaldi Barkat from the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel studied how white noise affects the auditory cortex in distinguishing between sounds that are very close on the frequency spectrum.
The auditory cortex is the area of the brain that processes auditory stimuli. The more precisely the auditory cortex can distinguish between different sound patterns, the better your hearing is. When sounds are very close on the frequency spectrum, however, the auditory cortex has more difficulty in distinguishing between the sounds.
Dr. Barkat and her team of researchers investigated how white noise affects the auditory cortex’s ability to distinguish between similar sounds. They first hypothesized that the presence of additional noise, including white noise, would make the hearing task more difficult. They thus expected that adding white noise to the sound test would result in a decreased ability to differentiate between tones.
Surprisingly, white noise instead assisted the brain in distinguishing subtle tone differences. Researchers believe this is because the white noise inhibited the activity of nerves in the auditory cortex. This suppression then led to a more precise perception of the pure tones.
Interestingly, the auditory cortex showed a greater ability to distinguish between tone differences when white noise was present than in a quiet environment. The researchers believe that this new information may be helpful in improving auditory perception in situations where sounds are difficult to distinguish.
Although this study was conducted in mice, the research team feels confident that the findings can be useful in humans as well. In addition to proving useful in situations where it is difficult to distinguish sounds, the researchers hope that these findings hold promise for those who use cochlear implants. Dr. Barkat believes that it may be possible to stimulate cochlear implants with an effect similar to white noise that would improve the frequency resolution. This would then improve the hearing result in the user.
If you would like to learn more about this study, about white noise, or about other new hearing research, we invite you to contact our hearing practice today. We are committed to staying up to date with the latest research to continually provide you and your family with the highest possible level of care.