Wellness

What Happens To Your Brain When You Listen To A Podcast Before Bed

*Dreaming in Ira Glass's voice.*

Experts explain what happens when you listen to a podcast before you fall asleep.
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Sometimes you need a little help drifting off into dreamland. Maybe you're a white noise devotee, or perhaps listening to podcasts before you sleep is more your style. Turns out podcasts and sleepy time go hand in hand — according to 2019 data from Edison Research, more than half of nearly 6,000 people surveyed report having tuned in to their favorite pod to relax before bed.

Absorbing that new content stimulates your brain. A 2016 study published in the journal Nature found that listening to stories, like podcasts, activates multiple parts of your brain, including the areas responsible for sensory processing, emotions, and memory making.

The same is true when you listen to a podcast before going to sleep, says Dr. Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., author of The Committee of Sleep and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University. And once you fall asleep, that's when your brain gets to work sorting through the information it took in during the day, including that pre-sleep podcast, says Dr. Erin Hanlon, Ph.D., a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Chicago.

According to a sleep research theory called the synaptic homeostasis hypothesis, your brain organizes all of that data during a stage of shut eye called slow-wave sleep, says Hanlon. Picture a bunch of neurons huddled around filing cabinets, working together to decide what information from the day is new and needs to be filed away, and what info is already there and doesn't need to be re-filed, she says. Then the neurons take a break for a while. That makes up the long peaks and valleys (literal slow waves) of brain activity during this type of sleep, which will take place regardless of whether or not you listened to the latest episode of your favorite pod.

It May Depend On The Podcast You're Listening To

How active your brain is before that phase of sleep, though, depends on your pod of choice. If you're on the edge of your seat (or bed) listening to the crime podcast Sword and Scale, it might be harder to fall asleep than it is with Get Sleepy's peaceful soundscapes. "You don't want to listen to something that you'll want to pay attention to because you don’t want to get re-activated," Hanlon tells Bustle. "Listening to something that’s interesting to you will grab your attention and keep you awake."

But exactly which podcasts keep you wired depends on the individual, says Hanlon. You might be able to listen to a true crime thriller and feel totally calm afterwards just in time to hit the hay, whereas somebody else might stay up late with anxiety or nightmares from those scary stories, she explains. "The phrase 'If it ain't broken, don't fix it!' applies," Barrett tells Bustle, of those who can still wind down after an exciting pod. "For people who have any trouble falling or staying asleep, a meditation or other soothing podcast would be better."

Your Nighttime Routine Matters

Creating a pre-bedtime routine is also important to help your brain wind down, says Hanlon. This is where listening to a podcast may work to your advantage when it comes to falling asleep. "It’s a paired response," she says. "If you do the exact same things before you go to bed, including listening to a podcast, then your brain knows that it’s getting ready for sleep. It doesn’t matter what podcast it is as long as it relaxes you."

Your nightly routine is just one component of good sleep hygiene, says Hanlon, which also includes setting the right atmosphere for sleep with darkness, a cool temperature, a comfortable bed, and sticking to a regular sleep schedule.

Like during the day, your brain is also constantly processing outside stimuli while you're asleep, though you might not be consciously aware of it, she says. That includes podcasts, if you like to use them as background noise while you snooze. If that's the case, don't be surprised if some podcast content drifts into your dreams, according to Hanlon. She recommends keeping the podcast at a low volume so that any loud or sudden noises don't startle you awake.

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Consider Relaxation Podcasts

But if your favorite pod is keeping you up later than you'd like, that's probably because it's compelling enough that you're paying attention and actively listening. If that sounds like you, Barrett suggests listening to a relaxation pod to help your brain power down before bed — fortunately, there's no shortage of podcasts to fall asleep to with the help of soothing soundscapes, bedtime stories, and ASMR.

Some of those relaxation podcasts may actually promote deep sleep, according to Hanlon. Those slow waves in your brain while you sleep happen at a specific frequency, and listening to something that’s close to or at that frequency may help drive that phase of sleep, she says. A 2014 study published in the journal Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience found that hearing certain tones can indeed encourage those long, slow brain waves.

So whether you're all about action-packed serials or prefer a peaceful soundscape to help you doze off, the bottom line is that listening to a podcast before bed impacts everybody differently. If you're able to fall and stay asleep despite listening to exciting content, then keep doing what you're doing — your brain is processing that new information without disrupting your rest. If not, perhaps a relaxation-focused podcast could help solve your sleeping woes. "Before you go to sleep, you want to try to do things that are relaxing; that will wind you down instead of start you up," says Hanlon. "Pick a podcast that is calming, relaxing, and routine to you."

Experts:

Dr. Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., author of The Committee of Sleep and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University

Dr. Erin Hanlon, Ph.D., a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Chicago's Sleep Research Center

Studies Cited:

(2019.) The Podcast Consumer 2019. Edison Research, http://www.edisonresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Edison-Research-Podcast-Consumer-2019.pdf

Bellesi, M. (2014). Enhancement of sleep slow waves: underlying mechanisms and practical consequences. Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4211398/

Huth, A. (2016). Natural speech reveals the semantic maps that tile human cerebral cortex. Nature, https://www.nature.com/articles/nature17637