I’d been having trouble sleeping for weeks when my roommate, Winston, turned on his cassette player to listen to an audiobook. It was my first time living away from home and falling asleep in the City That Never Sleeps was not easy. What midwestern, suburban kid could, with the foreign sounds of gunshots and police sirens echoing on the corner of Bedford Park and Grand Concourse?
I’d always been an avid reader, a slightly snooty one too, believing the only way to really experience a story was through ink on paper and the sound of pages turning. So when I first heard, “HarperAudio presents The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” all I heard was noise. Who in their right mind wanted to add more noise to the circus around us?
“Have you heard this before?” Winston asked.
“You mean, read? Yes, I’ve read it — in the fifth grade.”
“Oh well, I haven’t. Do you mind if we listen?”
Of course, I minded! It was a children's title and it was 11 at night but I was too exhausted to argue. Soon he’d fall asleep, and I’d just turn it off.
That’s not what happened though. As we began to listen, I found myself feeling like a little kid tucked securely into bed while Dad read to me.
The audiobook re-focused my attention — my anxieties about living in New York and missing my family seemed to get lost in the story. Soon, I was fast asleep.
It is 9 years later, and there is rarely a night that I fall asleep without an audiobook.
Music has been helping us sleep, almost since the day we were born. From the early days of lullabies and classical music up to the 21st century where sleepers fall asleep to modern bands like Radiohead, LORDE, and Adele. I even have a friend who falls asleep to Kanye.
I’ve tried it, and it’s not for me.
A 2006 study had sleep disturbed students listen to classical music as they were falling asleep. Students who listened to music had slept significantly better than those who did not listen to anything. This experiment is one of many that demonstrates how music can help people get quality rest.
Not only did our parents tell us that TV would rot our brains out, now doctors and scientists from across the globe say it could be detrimental to sleep health.
Experts at the National Sleep Foundation point out that the blue light that is transmitted through screens can delay the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin. This light is defined by its short wavelengths that emit high amounts of energy. These wavelengths can penetrate deep into the eye, causing the mind to be more alert and potentially resetting the body’s internal clock, aka our circadian rhythm.
When melatonin production fails, the body and mind are not as prepared as they should be to induce sleep.
A study performed by Loma Linda University, School of Public Health found that subjects who watched more than 2 hours of TV a day were more likely to wake in the middle of the night, have trouble falling asleep, and get less sleep overall than subjects who watched less than 2 hours of TV a day.
So where do audiobooks fall on this good to bad spectrum of night-time listening?
Audiobooks and podcasts are not a new medium, but they have definitely grown in popularity over the past several years. Surprisingly, research on how well they can help people sleep is scarce, even with so many tuning into them right before they go to bed.
The aforementioned 2006 study demonstrated how music could be effective for troubled sleepers. This same experiment used audiobooks as a variable, and though not defined as not a “statistically significant” improvement, it does allude to a slight improvement in sleep quality.
While there is little science aiding audiobooks, there is still a nightly benefit to this medium. Audiobooks could help wean sleepers off of blue light disturbances like social media, TV, or other sleep zapping mediums. They could also help distract you from the worries of everyday life, allowing you to relax. Plus you get to read more — SCORE!
I want to tell you “Yes, absolutely. Listening to audiobooks while fast asleep can make you a smarter person.” That would make life so much easier. But the truth is, it really doesn’t.
Sounds like science fiction, right? Mastering quantum physics and ancient Aztec dialects, all while catching a few Zs? While astounding in its own right, the information learned was not quite that exciting. The reports showed that sleepers could learn new words as well as recollect certain sound patterns.
There is something to be said for memory retention. People wishing to better recall information could potentially listen to a book recounting that information. However, learning while asleep is not directly applicable to audiobooks, at least not yet!
Listening to educational resources could be useful for students studying for a test or exam. People learning another language could also try to listen to a book in that language to help improve their language skills, but there are no studies directly backing this up.
Beyond these applications, listening to audiobooks while asleep most likely won’t boost your IQ. But it likely won’t make it drop, either. If you wake up and find your audiobook has played through the night, the only real harm done is that you may have lost your spot in the book.
When sleeping with audiobooks, it's important to experiment. Try out different genres and find which is best for you to fall asleep to. Not every book is going to be a good fit for sleeping, while others can knock you right out.
I’m the type of person who can’t sleep because I’m either worried about something, or I have some great idea that gets my mind racing. Using that second scenario, here’s an example of when an audiobook was not effective for me:
Screenwriting and telling stories, in general, is my passion. A few weeks ago I downloaded a book on screenwriting called Save the Cat. I made the grave mistake of trying to listen to this while laying in bed. Suddenly, I had a thousand story ideas running through my head. Before I knew it, I was sitting at my computer typing them all down. I kept listening and writing, I could not sleep, I was too excited.
The result: I got almost no sleep and suffered through work the next day.
As much as I was enjoying the book, this was a bad audiobook selection for sleep.
When listening to audiobooks it is important to know your personality type. If you can fall asleep to a good story, go for it. But if you are the type who gets caught up in the book and are waiting for the next big moment to fall asleep, fast-paced stories might not be your gig.
Historical books can be great because they typically don’t have that driving force that creative nonfiction and fiction carry.
Self-help books can also be great. Ironically I’m currently listening to a book called Sleep by Nick Littlehales, and though it is far from boring, the speaker's tone and the subject matter make it easy to doze off.
Self-help books can also keep sleepers awake if they're not careful. When people start thinking of all the ways they need to immediately improve their lives, these thoughts can lead to a tremendously restless night.
Podcasts are an alternative to audiobooks that have gained a ton of traction in the past several years. The subjects range from history, technology, cinema, and more. Whatever your niche is there is likely a podcast covering the topic that you could fall asleep to.
A bad narrator can ruin a perfectly good book. Likewise, a good narrator with a soothing voice can make your eyelids shut pretty quickly. The narrator may be more important than the book for sleeping, so finding a good reader may be the key to falling asleep to an audiobook.
My go-to audiobook when I don’t know what to listen to is Harry Potter, not just because I love the stories, but because I know the stories so well, I don’t really need to listen to know what’s going on. The narrator, Jim Dale, does such an incredible performance that I can count on him to read me to sleep in just a matter of minutes.
Another reason audiobooks are so great, many authors read their own books. They often include side notes and adlibs not present in the written editions.
Like genres, try out different narrators. If you find one that helps you seamlessly drift off, stick with them for as long as you can.
Most audiobook apps allow users to set a timer. This allows them to fall asleep without their book running on too long, making it easy to find their place the next day.
This feature can be set to different lengths of time, dependent on how long you think it will take you to fall asleep. These can even be set to expire at the end of a chapter.
While your audiobook is playing it can be tempting to catch up on emails, check Instagram, or find your future wife on Tinder. But what you need to do is lock your phone, dim the lights, and let the book do its work. While listening, actively try to sleep by relaxing your body and letting your mind focus on the book and nothing else.
In an age of subscription services, media is easier to reach than ever and audiobooks are no exception. On their own they can be quite pricey, some being as much as $50 per title. Here are some of the best places to find a good book for a decent price.
This audiobook and podcast source is owned by the frontrunner of online books, Amazon. They offer a 30-day free trial, allowing readers to download a free title. After that, their service is $14.95 for one download a month. They offer hundreds of thousands of titles to choose from and listeners can exchange books that they have finished or do not enjoy for additional credit.
Libby is an online library access tool by Microsoft OneDrive. This platform allows users to access their local library’s ebooks and audiobooks. While listeners may not be able to access as many titles this way (or may have to wait to borrow), it is free to use so all you have to do is dig out your local library card and download the app.
While this is not a source per se, there are several great places to find good podcasts. Spotify, Apple, and many more. There is even a podcast called Sleep With Me where the host tells stories to help adults fall asleep. Listeners can even use YouTube to expand their search, but if you do this route be sure not to watch, turn your phone screen facing down so you are forced to only listen.
This is how I got my start. If technology is not your style, most libraries carry either CD or cassette audiobooks that can be rented out and listened to. You might be surprised what you can find at your local branch.
I’ve linked several books already, but here is a variety of great audiobooks and podcasts that I would highly recommend.
These books and podcasts are really good, but they may be either too funny or enjoyable to fall asleep to. But with that said, there are definitely people who can doze off to them, I certainly have.
More research on audiobooks and sleep is needed to better explore how they may or may not help sleepers. Truth be told, they are not for everyone, especially when it's time to get some rest.
Some people find that a good story keeps them up, while others can seamlessly drift off. In order to know for yourself, you’ll just have to give one a try.
Even if they can’t help you sleep, hopefully, you’ve found a new way to enjoy a book. Either way, I’m going to keep using them when I turn out the lights. Good night!