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Why You Hear Voices in Your White Noise Machine

Every night, I—like millions of others—put on a noise machine to help me sleep. Mine offers several types of noise: white, pink, green, and brown. I’ve noticed something strange, though. After about 30 minutes of the noise pumping into my head, I start to hear things. Sometimes it’s music, like a full orchestral score. Other times it’s people having a conversation just out of the range where I’d hear actual words. Occasionally, it sounds like my husband playing a video game.

So I do what most people would do when a random sound is keeping them up at night. I try to find it. I turn off the white noise and listen intently. Do I need my husband to turn the TV down? Should I text the neighbors to see if they’re alright? Is there, in fact, an entire orchestra playing a score in the alley below my window?

And of course, there never is.

The first time I googled this random noise-during-noise, I panicked. Apparently hearing things that aren’t there is referred to in the psych biz as auditory pareidolia, or auditory hallucinations, and is a hallmark of schizophrenia—and some experts say it requires a psychological check-up.

“Since there's a higher probability of this phenomenon in those with psychological disorders, individuals should likely be evaluated by a mental health professional if they are hearing these hallucinations,” advises Ruth Reisman, an audiologist who focuses on rehabilitation with hearing technology. She also notes that research is divided on the topic, with some studies saying noise produces hallucinations and some saying it doesn’t.

But regardless, surely my therapist, who I’ve seen regularly for nearly a decade, would have picked up on any schizophrenic tendencies I may have. I’m a lot of things, but schizophrenic is not one of them. I’m just … hearing weird noises in fuzzy sounds.

Luckily for me and anyone else dealing with this particular affliction, it turns out there’s a perfectly normal reason you may hear random sounds in white noise (or any other continuous noise). It’s still called auditory pareidolia, but it’s on the pattern-matching end of the spectrum instead of the psychosis end. Simply put, your brain is trying to figure out what it’s hearing, so it’s filling in the gaps of the noise you’re listening to with a common sound.

“When you hear, your brain is a pattern-matching machine,” says Neil Bauman, CEO of the Center for Hearing Loss Help. “Everything I say, all my words, all the sounds, are in your brain, in your database. And as each sound comes in, your brain looks through its database to see if it's got the same pattern of sound. If it does, it says, oh, I recognize that word.”

Even if it’s a word you don’t know—something in ancient Greek, for example—you’ll still recognize some letters and some sounds, and your mind will fill in the spaces in order to replicate a pattern you already know.

Any app or machine you listen to that produces a color of noise, like white, brown, pink, green, or otherwise, is based on an algorithm or a code. It’s not truly random—so you’ll get a little while of what seems like random noise, and then the sounds repeat. On the surface, it probably doesn’t seem like it. But your brain recognizes the pattern and tries to make sense of it, which leads to hearing noises that aren’t actually there.

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So me hearing a symphony in my noise machine? It’s like looking at a fuzzy picture with people in it. I wouldn’t be able to tell who each person is; I would just recognize people and then make my own assumptions from there. It’s like the auditory equivalent of seeing the Virgin Mary in a piece of bread.

Another example, says Robert Remez, a psychologist and professor at Columbia University, is when people were playing Beatles records backwards to try and hear coded messages about Paul McCartney dying and being replaced by a look-alike.

“It was the Beatles saying ‘Paul is dead,’” Remez says. “But the thing is, those signals were so highly distorted, I’m not sure it’s fair to call their listening speech perception. I think it might be more like reasoning by analogy, which is if you had to say which English sentence most resembles the mumbling that you heard on the record, you might say ‘Paul is dead.’”

Remez also calls this “false alarming,” or “having an impression of the presence of a signal when no signal is present,” he says.

False alarming is pretty common when you listen to noise to help you fall asleep or if you’re using noise generation to mask another sound, like someone snoring next to you.

“One of the reasons people think they’re hearing things when they hear a noise, especially if the noise is being used to put them to sleep, is that their attention to the world is not exactly crisp,” Remez says. “They are unguarded in how they actually apply their criteria for recognition cognitively.” If you’re using a sound generator to mask another noise like snoring, “you have to make the noise mask loud enough so that it’s at least uncertain whether you’re hearing the snoring, and that’s going to make you uncertain about whether you’re hearing other things.”

For a while, I’d been calling these noises auditory hallucinations—which led to Reisman’s focus on psychological evaluations, and to Bauman’s quick refutation of the H-word.

“Audio pareidolia is not a hallucination,” Bauman says. “It's an illusion, as you're really hearing a sound, your brown noise, or your fan, or whatever. But you're interpreting it. Your brain is perceiving it as something else. So, that's an illusion. A hallucination is where there's no real sound.”

In essence, that means there’s no need to fret about this phenomenon if you’re experiencing it as well. That is, unless you’re hearing something when no other sound is happening around you.

“That’s when you worry, if you hear it without the noise and nobody else in the room hears it,” Remez says.

There’s a quick way to tell if what you’re hearing is audio pareidolia. If you’re hearing a weird or unexpected sound, just put your hands over your ears. If the sound stops, you can be sure the noise is generated from a source outside your own head. But if you still hear it, and especially if the sound is talking directly to you or about you, it’s time to get checked out.

Unfortunately, there’s not really any way to stop the sound-in-sound experience if you continue to listen to the same source. I can switch my sound machine to play a different type of noise, and that helps me. But if you’re hearing it from a ceiling fan with one speed, or your air conditioner, there’s not much you can do aside from turning it off or moving out of earshot.

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