You might not consider yourself a light sleeper, but if the first thing you do when you get ready for bed is turn on the ceiling fan, chances are that you are. If you are a light sleeper, though, but didn’t discover the fan trick just yet, we say try it, even if you don’t need it for the climate control. The reason why some of us swear by this trick for a better night’s rest is surprisingly simple - the fan acts as a white noise machine that lulls us to sleep while canceling out the background noise of traffic, the neighbors’ dogs barking, or whatever stirs your slumber.
But we’re not here to tell you about the benefits of white noise for sleep, as we’ve already covered this topic in a previous article titled Trouble Falling Asleep? Try White Noise. Today, let’s focus on the actual reasons that make some people, but not others, more sensitive to background noise while they’re asleep. Scientists have recently discovered that it all boils down to individual differences in brain wiring. And while some people may even sleep through a hurricane, even the slightest bit of noise may irreversibly ruin the night of others.
The Noise-Canceling Power of Sleep Spindles
Researchers say the soundness of our sleep depends on our individual brain cycles, and to be even more precise, to a phenomenon known as sleep spindles. According to the American Psychological Association, sleep spindles are sudden bursts of neural oscillatory activity that produce significant spikes on electroencephalogram (EEG) tests, which is exactly how they got their name.
Sleep spindles don’t last long, typically between 0.5 and 3 seconds, and they can only occur during light NREM sleep and deep slow-wave sleep, but not during REM sleep according to Current Biology Magazine. But why is that important? Well, mainly because researchers have discovered that sleep spindles are crucial for good sleep and information retention.
“During a spindle event, the transmission of incoming sensory information is suppressed (...), brain responses to external stimuli are diminished and it is more difficult to wake someone while sleep spindles are generated”, the same article from Current Biology Magazine pointed out. Thus, the more sleep spindle someone experiences, the better defense they have against outside noises and lights. The opposite is true as well: the less sleep spindles one has, the more sensitive they are to outside stimuli, which is exactly why light sleepers are so sensitive to noises at night.
Why do some people have fewer sleep spindles?
As of now, it isn’t clear why some people produce more sleep spindles than others and can luxuriate in better sleep overall. Some researchers claim that anxiety levels play a big part in decreasing the number of sleep spindles, but this claim requires more proof. Women are also known to experience about 9-10 more sleep spindles every hour than men, on average, and researchers have claimed that this may be somehow linked to estrogen levels.
Most importantly, though, there is some evidence to suggest that learning a new skill or just new information can generate more sleep spindles, so it seems like keeping our brains active and working is one of the best ways to have a better sleep!
That said, let us be clear that being a light sleeper is perfectly fine, and if you need to control the environment to sleep well and resort to external methods to help you sleep, do what you need to do. Use that white noise machine or turn on that fan every night because good sleep is priceless!
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