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What Color Is Your Noise?

What Color Is Your Noise?

Does noise have color? The writer explores how the color of noise impacts our sleep, moods and well-being.

By Mukund Acharya

What is noise?

We’ve all been told during our childhood to “stop making that noise,” and heard the admonition “don’t yell!” I’m a big fan of classic rock music, but my sister covers her ears when she hears a ‘loud rock’ band. She reminds me of the article I read, titled ‘One man’s noise is another man’s music’. What I consider music is to her unwanted noise.

Noise is subjective. People find some sounds more pleasing than others:  the sound of water flowing in a brook is more soothing than, for example, the siren on an emergency vehicle.  The dictionary tells us that noise is “sound that lacks an agreeable quality or is noticeably unpleasant or loud.” Any sound that feels unpleasant or interferes with hearing something else is considered noise.

Physicists and engineers define noise as an unwanted component in a signal that they are trying to measure; something that could mask or distort the information they are seeking. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, scientists at Bell Labs, won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their 1968 discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation, while trying to eliminate what they thought was noise in signals they were monitoring in antenna experiments.

Does noise have color?

The human ear picks up sound in a range of audible frequencies. Anything we hear – speech, music, or a bell ringing – is composed of a combination of tones at different frequencies and intensities. When audible tones at all frequencies are combined with equal intensity, we get what’s called white noise or broadband noise – just as we get the color white when we combine all the colors in the rainbow.  White noise sounds like static on a TV or radio, or the buzz of a table fan.

Audio engineers and physicists now associate colors with combinations of tones with different spectral content. The technical definitions of these combinations are beyond the scope of this article. They include pink, red, violet, grey, green and black noise.  Informal descriptions are easier to understand. For instance, in pink noise, the tonal frequencies decrease in power with each higher octave to create a lower pitch sound, while in brown noise, the power at each frequency decreases twice as much as in pink noise, thereby creating a much deeper pitch. Pink noise is associated with the sound of light rain or a flowing river; while brown noise would be representative of heavy rain or a gushing waterfall.

noise-joshua-sukoff-@-unsplash-1How does noise affect us?

‘Noisy’ sounds have a variety of effects. They can distract us from our tasks, cause us to lose focus, irritate us, increase stress, or put us in a sour mood. It is still unclear whether the noise impacts our brain waves in certain ways, or if it helps by masking other noises or sounds in the environment. Sounds can have positive impacts as well.  A repetitive low rumbling sound, similar to the background noise in a mother’s womb has been found to have comforting qualities for infants.

Researchers studying the effect of white noise on humans have found that it can help reduce crying in infants and could be effective in a therapeutic regimen for children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD.  White noise has also been shown to be effective for patients suffering from Tinnitus – an unceasing ringing in the ears.

Do you have trouble falling asleep?

Many studies have looked at the effect of different color noises on sleep. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, “colored noises are having a major moment.” It quotes Dr. Barbara Shinn-Cunningham, the director of the Neuroscience Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, whose research combines behavioral, neuroimaging, and computational methods to understand how the brain processes sound.

These different color noises “all have a quality that’s boring to the brain and makes other sounds less perceptible. The main effect is to drown out unexpected or disruptive sounds that would distract you or compromise your attention,” she says.  Research supports the efficacy of some colors over the others to feel, focus, or sleep better.  Pink noise, with more power in lower frequencies than higher ones, has a smoother, more balanced sound, according to Catherine Franssen, a neuroscientist and professor of biological sciences at Longwood University. It has been shown to help people fall asleep more easily and sleep more soundly. It can improve work efficiency, improve judgment and speed on mental performance tests, and improve memory retention in the elderly. Red noise, with its deep, steady sound, feels pleasant and has been used to mask unwanted noises.

Green noise, which I have tried to use to fall asleep sooner at night, sounds like water flowing. It has been described as “being like background noises in nature, the sound of rhythmic ocean waves or a babbling brook.” Unlike the other noise colors, it has no technical definition, and is considered an unofficial color.

As I stated at the outset, noise is subjective. You could experiment to see if these color noises might work for you to fall asleep more easily, focus more, or just relax. You can access them on most music streaming apps, other media and internet sources.  Dr. Shinn-Cunningham says that “any frequency of noise can be helpful if it helps you focus on things or ignore sounds that are distracting.”

Read: Sleep warning: Snorers at increased risk of cancer


cropped-Mukund-Acharya-2022-04-small-size-scaled-1-120x120Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents. He is also President and a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area that advocates for healthy aging within the South Asian community. Sukham provides curated information and resources on health and well-being, aging, and life’s transitions, including serious illness, palliative and hospice care, death, and bereavement.

Courtesy: India Currents (Posted on March 27, 2024)


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