You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

How Sleep Podcasts Quietly Hack Your Brain

Esquire (UK) logo Esquire (UK) 3 days ago Tom Nicholson
a colorful blanket: More of us than ever need help dropping off. But what's behind the boom in snoozy podcasts? © Emma Shore More of us than ever need help dropping off. But what's behind the boom in snoozy podcasts?

Every night for the last week, I’ve walked down a back street in a quiet suburban town. I know it well, or maybe it’s my first time there. I find a door. Behind the door is a dark room. In the middle of the dark room is a beautiful crafted miniature city. I’m not sure what happens at that point. I tend to fall asleep.

During the pandemic, I’ve got very into sleep podcasts. I don’t mean I stick one on occasionally; since about May last year I’ve come to rely on them, rifling through as many as I could find, trying and discarding new hopefuls. Too nasal. Too scratchy. Too slow. Too fast. Too distractingly whimsical. Too abrasively boring. I have my favourites, and I don’t really know what I’d do without them.

If you don’t tend to spend the early hours of the morning staring at the wall and worrying about work, or your family, or your partner, or the time eight years ago that you ate your flatmate's Cathedral City and he found out and it was weird for a bit between you, then the concept sounds odd. These are podcasts which are designed not to be listened to. The less you hear of them, the better they are.

But the stresses of the last year have made them big business. Audible’s Bedtime Stories series, in which celebs including Nick Jonas read short lectures on quilt-making, maths, baseball and other mildly diverting topics, became the platform’s best-selling podcast of 2020 despite only dropping in June. Five other snooze-inducing titles from Audible’s Sleep Collection made the year's top 100 bestsellers.

Mindfulness app Calm says that its Sleep Stories section, launched in 2016 after the company noted a spike in users meditating around bedtime, is its most popular segment. Celebrities including Matthew McConaughey have read stories, and downloads have doubled since the start of the pandemic, topping a billion in 2020. A lot of us need them.

Fortunately, there are a lot to go round, and the shapes they take are endlessly varied and fascinating (or, rather, deliberately boring). Unlike much of the podcasting ecosystem, sleep podcasts haven’t yet been hammered into a one-size-fits-all format. Some, like the much-loved Sleep With Me, are a gently surreal stream of consciousness; others read classic literature or lead meditation practices. Some craft ambient, New Age synthscapes. Others use whispery ASMR.

My favourites, though, mix all of them: washes of sound with subtle plinks and plonks, plus meandering, reassuring narration. There’s something slightly spooky about how they seem to reach right down into the brain and turn the lights off, though. I want to know how they do it.

a person posing for the camera © Getty Images

Get Sleepy launched in November 2019 and when we speak in October 2020 its host, Thomas Jones, says each new episode is downloaded between 50,000 and 60,000 times. By mid-February, after two further national lockdowns and the darkest days of the pandemic, Get Sleepy is downloaded between 75,000 and 100,000 times a day, and the show has edged into the top 20 on the iTunes podcast chart.

It’s made by a small team of four, plus freelance writers and narrators from around the world. Without a professional studio at home in Buckinghamshire, Jones clears his girlfriend’s clothes from a built-in wardrobe and clambers in to record his introductions and narrations.

As far back as Jones can remember, he’s had trouble sleeping. “I’m still struggling to this day with it,” the 27-year-old says over Zoom. “A few years ago I started using some apps and podcasts as I was falling asleep and tried listening along, and it sort of had an effect – it wasn’t absolutely foolproof every night but I definitely thought, ‘Wow, this is a cool idea’.”

Jones got in touch with Michael Brandon, CEO of the app Slumber, to find out how someone got into the sleep podcast game. At the time he was managing a flooring shop in Southminster in Essex, but soon he was writing and recording his own stories for Brandon.

Over the last year and a half a formula of sorts has been formed, and there’s now a 10-point guide for Get Sleepy’s writers. A story should run to about 3,000 words, and there should be no dialogue (“Dialogue requires slightly more processing power from the listener”) or anything likely to make a listener unhappy or self-conscious (“Keep in mind common fears/issues/insecurities like claustrophobia, arachnophobia, infertility, loss of grandparents, alcohol use, concerns about weight or appearance, etc”). Simple language is good, and so are moments of relaxation and mindfulness, where a character feels grateful and content. Sensory, tactile descriptions are important too.

“It might describe the character touching a coin or something like that – how does that feel on your fingers?” says Jones. “So that people can really put themselves in the story in that situation. Sort of like carrying them into a dream themselves, with these visualisations.”

map: An 1863 illustration from the ’The Weather Book’ by Admiral Robert Fitzroy, founder of the Shipping Forecast © Science & Society Picture Library - Getty Images An 1863 illustration from the ’The Weather Book’ by Admiral Robert Fitzroy, founder of the Shipping Forecast

BBC Sounds’ Mindful Mix series takes a different approach. It blends new neoclassical works from BBC Music Introducing with spoken word, and its masterwork – or, at least, the one that always gets me to sleep – is The Sleeping Forecast. Gentle, airy piano pieces fade into each other while extracts of the Shipping Forecast drift by on the ebb tide.

Producer Freddie Botham had the idea of mixing music and the Shipping Forecast a while ago, but “towards the start of the year, when things started to go a bit south, it seemed like the perfect opportunity”.

Sifting through pieces uploaded to the Introducing site, there’s no hard and fast rule about what’s likely to fit in. “It’s quite broad but normally falls into the bounds of something that could be slow or gentle or, I guess, wistful without being too exciting,” he says.

That means no big jumps in volume, tempo or complexity of sound that are going to surprise anyone, which makes sense. There’s something else going on in sleep podcasts, though, beyond not suddenly dropping some Wagner. But what?

Sleep podcasts © Getty Images Sleep podcasts

“It’s impossible to disentangle really how they might be working,” says Dr Matt Jones, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Bristol. He’s researched sleep for much of his career, and while he doesn’t know any papers about sleep podcasts specifically, sleep itself varies so widely between people that there’s no one answer as to why they work.


Gallery: What would you do if you saw a UFO? (Espresso)

“If a sleep podcast is working for people,” he says, “it’s probably working in different ways for different people.” Dr Jones himself swears by For Emma, Forever Ago by Bon Iver as a sleep aid in hotel rooms.

Both Get Sleepy and The Sleeping Forecast might be exploiting the same bit of my brain, though. The type of sleep you settle into as you first drop off is non-Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, Dr Jones explains.

“The deepest part is called slow-wave sleep. The eponymous slow waves occur at about once per second, so you can think of them as Mexican waves that are largely initiated to the front of your brain and travel back across your cortical mantle.”

In principle, any sensory stimulation which mimics that rhythm – carefully paced talking, music, controlled breathing, or even, as Dr Jones has found himself, rocking in a hammock – “can encourage that kind of brain activity, or potentially entrain it”.

That rhythmic flow has been part of the quasi-spiritual power of the Shipping Forecast for more than 150 years now. Carol Ann Duffy called it “the radio’s prayer,” and its unhurried, cryptic liturgy soothes thousands to sleep at 12 minutes to one each night.

“It’s almost like a cataloguing, a listing, which is the perfect sort of tempo and vibe to just ignore in some ways,” says Botham. “You hear it and it washes over you, especially in the context of music in the background. I sort of accentuate that effect by having it quite low in the mix. It’s at the point where you can notice it and get the sensation of the rhythm of it, but you’re not necessarily required to listen to the words.”

The velvety tones of Radio 4’s British-Jamaican announcer, Neil Nunes, is always the first choice. “He’s got this beautiful, rich baritone voice that has a very calming quality to it. It just seemed perfect to me,” Botham says. “Personally, I just always had him in mind for it. Other people have felt the same way – his voice is very reassuring. There’s something very lovely about it.”

Nunes’ gorgeous voice is so low it feels like it’s dragging you into a deeper state of unconsciousness. “There’s something about lower frequencies and Neil Nunes’s voice, they are naturally comforting, there’s a womb-like aspect,” says Botham. The effect Get Sleepy and The Sleeping Forecast have on my brain certainly feels partly medical and partly mystical.

“I think when people go through trying times they kind of crave competency,” says Botham. “I think the Shipping Forecast is a great example, because it’s even-handed and it’s reassuring. It’s almost as if to say no matter how stormy things get, everything’s in control, it’s all gonna be alright.”

Jones uses his voice to the same effect on Get Sleepy, rounding off the edges from his speaking tone. “I’m born and bred in Essex, so ultimately my usual twang has a bit of Essex to it. It’s not that I’m ashamed of that in any way, but for the sleep podcast I always try to pronounce things properly and make sure I include all my Ts and all that sort of stuff.”

A soothing voice speaking in that metronomic cadence might be what’s helping me to drop off, says Dr Jones.

“It’s probably no coincidence that the right tone of voice delivered at the right metre and rhythm taps into the brain’s innate rhythmicity. As your brain rhythms transition from the waking state – which is quite busy as you might imagine, and sort of fragmented, lots of parts of the brain doing lots of different things – into the earlier sleep stages, non-REM sleep stages – N1 to N3 to use the technical jargon – then you enter into this more stable, less variable rhythmic pattern of activity.”

As well as massaging the deeper parts of the brain, both Get Sleepy and The Sleeping Forecast aim to disrupt the thoughts which chase around a sleepless mind.

“It’s the time when you’re not doing other things,” says Get Sleepy’s Tom Jones. “You’re not on a phone, you’re not doing work, so suddenly you’re confronted with your mind and all these thoughts that maybe weren’t even relevant during the day.”

The aim, he says, is to lead the mind forwards through a story rather than letting it spin in circles.

“You can’t lay there and think: right, stop thinking. That just makes things worse. So I think what the podcast does is it gives people something else to actually focus the mind on, so rather than trying to stop thinking altogether, it invites people to think about this instead.”

There isn’t much literature on the subject, but Dr Jones isn’t surprised that listeners find distracting their conscious minds helpful.

“The neural circuitry that controls our arousal state and encourage us to switch from wake to sleep and vice versa, is increasingly well understood,” says Dr Jones. “It’s a sort of complex, iterative process. The brain stem, deep down in your brain, is connected and loops up to the cortex up at the top of your brain. The signals that initiate ‘time to go to sleep now’ come from the brain stem and spread to the cortical layers.

“But if your cortex isn’t in the right state to receive those signals then it won’t let you go to sleep, and that’s probably where a lot of problems arise – if you’re anxious, for example, and you can’t things off your mind, then it’s difficult to go to sleep.”

Dr Jones is a little disappointed that we don’t know more about how distracting the brain can help sleep, but ultimately, he says, it’s neither here nor there.

“If something works for you then to some extent, who cares how it’s working? We all need all the help we can get these days.”

Like this article? Sign up to our newsletter to get more delivered straight to your inbox.

SIGN UP

Need some positivity right now? Subscribe to Esquire now for a hit of style, fitness, culture and advice from the experts

SUBSCRIBE

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from Esquire

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon