“On the fifth day, which was a Sunday, it rained very hard. I like it when it rains hard. It sounds like white noise everywhere, which is like silence but not empty.”
― Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
White noise is a curious thing. It is noise, but at the same time so much like the absence of noise. The dictionary definition of white noise is “a heterogeneous mixture of sound waves extending over a wide frequency range” or “a constant background noise.” It may come in the form of rain, as in the quote above, static in between radio stations or on a missing TV channel, or the whooshing of wind through trees.
People use it to concentrate on work with the help of ambient noise apps or to fall asleep with the help of white noise machines. They even use it to help mask ringing in the ears, otherwise known as tinnitus.
Researchers now believe that white noise could also have an unlikely benefit of helping us improve our hearing.
White noise and clearer hearing
White noise has long been used to help manage tinnitus, but the newest research is showing that it could also help individuals better perceive sounds. Researchers from the University of Basel recently published findings in Cell Reports that show white noise helped to inhibit certain neural activity in the auditory cortex, which in turn allowed for a better perception of pure tones.
As little is still truly understood about how the brain processes sound, the team focused their research on this area and how it may “hear” in noisy environments. They set out, with the help of their mice subjects, to better understand how the brain identifies what sounds are important, and not important to focus on, and how it may better be able to hone in on sound patterns.
While the team’s initial hypothesis was that white noise would make hearing more difficult. In a surprising find, the white noise not only made hearing tone differences easier, but it was also preferable to silence.
“We found that less overlap occurred between populations of neurons during two separate tone representations,” explained the research team lead Professor Tania Barkat from the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel. “As a result, the overall reduction in neuronal activity produced a more distinct tone representation.”
What the findings mean
While it is intriguing that white noise could offer a better overall hearing environment, researchers stress that the implications could be even more significant. Not only could the findings be of use in hearing aids, but the team believes that it could be used to create more effective cochlear implants. Hearing ability could be improved for millions who rely on such devices to manage moderate to severe hearing loss.
Researchers continue to explore the process of hearing and the brain’s role in it. Findings like these offer a deeper understanding and hope for the future.
If you have questions about hearing loss, managing tinnitus, or how white noise could help you, contact our office or your hearing healthcare provider.