I specialize in the behavioral neuroscience of consciousness, including individual differences in sleep and sleep loss, temporal meta-awareness, and social justice.
Music and Sleep
Did you sleep enough last night? If you’re like the majority of Americans, the answer is a resounding “no.” What if I said you could sleep better just by putting in your earphones and pressing play?
Recently, composer Max Richter released an eight-hour composition titled Sleep, meant as an extended lullaby to be listened to while sleeping. The question is, does it work?
The literature on the impact of music on sleep quality is mixed. Some studies say it helps, while others find no such effect. I think this conflict may come from simply asking the wrong question. Rather than, “does it work?” we need to start with this: given the way sleep is structured, can music even influence it to begin with?
The answer is yes and no. Sleep is not a simple slide into unconsciousness. It is a complex, multi-stage shift in consciousness where we slowly disengage the external environment and create an internal reality unique to ourselves. For the first few minutes of falling asleep, we may still be influenced by what is going on around us. In that case, soothing music, like any relaxing stimulus, may help us on the way to sleep. After those first few floating minutes, however, something strange happens. The brain starts to actively block reception of and response to external sensory information. Once you’ve reached this stage, you’re no longer hearing anything outside of your own head, including whatever is being piped through your headphones. This transition from “outside” to “inside” is complete once you reach REM sleep, when your brain is functionally rewired to pay attention only to its own internal cues – those memories that are cut up and recombined into what we call dreams.
So can listening to music help you sleep? It can make falling asleep easier, but for most of the night you’re missing the show.