Jim Buckwalter was an insomniac who liked to tinker with things. After one too many sleepless nights, he engineered the first white noise machine with a turntable motor (it was 1962) and a small fan blade inside a metal dog bowl. Today he runs Marpac, one of the largest manufacturers of “sound conditioners” or “sleep machines.” Demand is big for stress relieving sounds at home – adults have discovered the soothing effects of white noise on colicky babies – and at the workplace. Employers are installing sound masking systems featuring speakers in the ceiling that emit just the right amount/level of sound so that an open floor of workers won’t be easily distracted by (or eavesdrop on) coworkers’ conversations. (A study by the Data Entry Management Association showed that poor acoustics increased errors made by data entry staff by 27 percent.) Unlike the sound machine at home (or the phone app on the road), “listeners” at work don’t get to choose from a sound selection of crickets, heartbeats, or rain trickling on a window.
In 2003, Science published a study by award-winning neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, PhD, aka “The Brain Guy,” which suggested that exposing infants to continuous white noise may possibly delay language development – and likely even hearing, an effect he saw in young rats in his lab. While nighttime exposure might be okay for children not prone to learning disabilities, Merzenich advises parents to turn off the machines during the day and to spend time talking or reading to babies in order to expose them to clear (hearing) signals. Remarkably, this needed to be said. No telling if these engaged kids will make 27 percent more mistakes in life than the others, but they should be able to explain themselves.