Sound Alertness During Sleep

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In speaking in terms of hearing, that old saying “out like a light” may not hold as true as it used to when referring to sleeping children. A recent study conducted by researchers at Tennessee’s Vanderbilt University reveals new indications supporting the old theory that our hearing doesn’t actually turn off when we go to sleep.

While most of us have experienced many nights being woken by a noise, there’s never been much research regarding the question of how much sound we actually absorb and process during a night’s rest or other sleeping periods.

An Enlightening Study

Taking advantage of the University preschool, child participants were monitored using a portable EEG machine while they napped. The purpose of the monitoring was to see if the children recognized sounds that were played during sleep, later in the day during awake periods.

Scientists played a test word among a group of nonsense words while the children slept. Once they awoke, the scientists played the test word again. The children’s brain activity on the EEG indicated that they recognized the sound as something they heard before.

The results of the researchers’ work were presented at the Acoustical Society of America’s 176th meeting during the Canadian Acoustical Association 2018 Acoustics Week in Canada at the Victoria Conference Center in Victoria. This preliminary study may be the gateway to more intensive study on populations of all varieties and age to examine the depth of our hearing alertness during sleep.

Implications For Child Development

The results of future studies could have real implications for the way we look at sleep environments for children, and what constitutes healthy, restful sleep. This particular area has been a subject of interest for many professionals in hearing health sciences and developmental psychology, but the lack of research has left many questions unanswered.

There are also implications for children with assistive hearing devices and hearing aids. Most children with these devices remove them while they sleep for the sake of comfort. Depending on the environment, this may assist or dampen their sleep experience.

The study did include one child with a cochlear implant, but much more intensive study needs to be conducted in this area to find tangible answers. And while the preschool nap environment may not be the ideal place to conduct a study, pediatric sleep centers across the country may have the best environment and equipment to conduct a long term, wide-ranging studies on children of varying ages.

Answering More Questions

In the meantime, more questions can be asked and answered around the topic of hearing during sleep. How much noise is absorbed by the brain before becoming disruptive to sleep, for instance? Or, is there a difference between sound processing during sleep versus wakeful states? How does white noise help or hinder the quality and quantity of sleep in a normal adult? Does being a light sleeper mean you actually wake from noise stimulation more easily than the normal sleeper. What kind of effect does this have on your overall quality of sleep, and ultimately your quality of life?

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