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What is white noise?

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What is white noise?

People talk about white noise all the time, but what is it really? What's all the hype and is it really worth having?

Definition

Think of white light. All the colors of the spectrum are combined, thus producing "white light." Similarly, white noise is a combination of 20,000 different sound frequencies. The result is that your brain is unable to process individual noises because of the combination of all the different frequencies. Therefore, your brain tunes out what is usually a distracting or annoying noise (coworker popping her gum or neighbor's dog barking).

A picture of how it works

Example: Imagine being on an airplane. Before the plane takes off, you can easily eavesdrop on most conversations around you- whether you want to or not. You are also captive to every child on the plane- in fact, it may feel like they're in the seat next to you with a bullhorn. However, once the engine starts and the airplane takes off, you can still partake in your own conversation, and you may be aware of other conversations and children around you, but you cannot understand them. (Can I get an amen?)

That's how white noise works without the cost of an airplane ticket. With a low-level background hum, white noise covers other noises and conversations, by keeping your brain from focusing on them. However, you can still be in tune to what's immediately around you, such as your own conversation, phone call, or work.

Applications

People use white noise in all sorts of ways:

While some people use fans to simulate white noise, only white noise generators (i.e. sound machines) produce true white noise. The advantage of a sound machine is a smaller size, portability, and volume control. Additionally, most sound machines offer extra features, such as sound therapy (tinnitus), a variety of sound options (nature sounds), and even alarms and timers.