Studies show that between 10 and 30 percent of people in developed countries experience insomnia, with most complaining of difficulty getting off to bed, or waking up undesirably early. Experts have blamed the surge in sleep disturbances on the pressures of modern life and Britain’s weight problems. One sleep expert, however, suggests that listening to music in the evening could be one of the reasons you’re unable to sleep.
Professor of psychology and neuroscience Michael Scullin felt compelled to investigate the matter after he found himself waking up in the middle of the night with songs stuck in his head.
To probe the link between music listening and sleep, he focussed his study on involuntary musical imagery.
Involuntary musical imagery – also known as earworms – is the technical term for a song that is stuck in one’s head.
Scullin explained: “Our brains continue to process music even when none is playing, including apparently while we are asleep.
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“Everyone knows that music listening feels good. Adolescents and young adults routinely listen to music near bedtime. But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.”
Through his research, Scullin was able to show that people who experience earworms at night are more likely to experience fragmented sleep.
“The more you listen to music, the more like you are to catch an earworm that won’t go away at bedtime”, he added.
“When that happens, the chances are our sleep is going to suffer.”
The study comprised of 50 participants who were brought into Scullin’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory, at Baylor University.
Scullin attempted to induce earworms in participants to investigate how this affected their sleep patterns, using polysomnography.
The tool is a standard test for sleep that record a patient’s brain waves, heart rates, breathing to determine neural activity.
Scullin explained: “Before bedtime, we played three popular and catchy songs – Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’, Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’ and Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin.’
“We randomly assigned participants to listen to the original versions of those songs or the de-lyricised instrumental versions of the songs.
“Participants responded whether and when they experienced an earworm.
“Then we analysed whether that impacted their nighttime sleep physiology. People who caught an earworm had greater difficulty falling asleep, more nighttime awakenings, and spent more time in light stages of sleep.”
The brain waves later revealed that participants who had caught an earworm before going to bed showed signs of slow oscillations during sleep – a memory of memory reactivation.
Results confirmed that individuals who habitually listened to music before going to bed experience persistent earworms and a decline in sleep quality.
The team concluded that the brain continues to process music for several hours after its stopped playing, which challenges the widely accepted view that music as a hypnotic might help sleep.
Scullin added: “If you commonly pair listening to music while being in bed, then you’ll have that association where being in that context might trigger an earworm even when you’re not listening to music, such as when you’re trying to fall asleep.”
Another way to avoid earworm is by actively trying to engage with a cognitively stimulating activity, which distracts the brain from music imagery.
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