Sleep Country

In a globalized yet fragmented world, sleep is one of the few bodily experiences we seem to share

Lindsay O’Connor, who goes by “Duke,” got his first computer in 2007, when he was in his late 40s. He had severe dyslexia, and had spent most of his adult life working construction in Austin, Texas, before becoming interested in photography and yoga. Newly certified as a yoga instructor, O’Connor set himself a goal. “I decided I was going to touch one million people in a positive way,” he told me recently, over the phone. The plan was vague, but he bought the computer to get into digital video-making and started his own YouTube channel, TexasHighDef. At first, he filmed his yoga classes. He also posted videos of stock-car racing, women’s clogging groups performing in turquoise sequined vests, and demolition derbies in which retired school buses were set on fire.

Then, it occurred to him to film rain. “Because I remembered as a kid, being in the car, and how the rain sounds really cool.” During a rainstorm, O’Connor made a video sitting in his truck in the driveway, facing his garage. “And this woman wrote to me — she had just brought home her premature baby that was so small you couldn’t even pick it up. And the baby’d just be crying and crying, and they’d put on my video, and in five minutes the baby was asleep.” The video started to take off, garnering more and more views. It was a moment of realization for O’Connor — maybe this was the positive way he had been hoping to touch people’s lives.

Of all the ways in which the internet can bring people together, its quiet corners for shared sleep may be one of its greatest achievements

He made more videos, with names like “Sleep Video 90 Mins by a Waterfall,” and “Sleep Video Rushing Water 60 Mins.” The waterfall video got 45,000 views and more grateful comments. “Thank You Sir/Maam,” wrote a viewer calling themselves The Pretzel. “I have stage 2 insomnia and this actually helped me fall asleep within 25 minutes. God bless you videos.” The channel’s subscription base and viewership grew, and O’Connor became active on YouTube forums, learning more about how best to use the platform to reach his audience. In 2010, he got a letter from Google. “They said they’d been watching me, which is a weird letter to get from Google, and they said they’re impressed with my knowledge of YouTube and they wanted to make me one of their experts.” He flew to Google headquarters in California and spent days talking to Google staff and other influential users about how the company could improve; he also got to test-drive new features and equipment before it hit the market.

Back in Austin, the videos became a full-time job. He did things like drag a six-foot plastic kiddie pool full of water into his garage and pour in a vial of black food coloring, then install a pump to make the water swish in slow circles. He filmed 60 minutes of 125 lit candles floating on the black water, and added rain sounds. “Eight hrs of this would be fantastic,” a viewer calling themselves Tactical Hobbit wrote. The eight-hour version has almost 100,000 views. In his first month of operations, O’Connor cleared a profit of $5.32; now, he’s creeping up on $100,000 a year. “Whenever I go on vacation, I’ll film the air conditioners inside the hotel rooms,” he told me, “and it’ll end up paying for the whole vacation.”

O’Connor films other kinds of soothing noises as well: fans, freight trains, construction vehicles with their heavy gear changes. But mostly, it’s rain: rain on a tin roof, rain in a tent, rain in a parking garage, rain in a carport, spring rain, summer rain, rain in a car at a gas station, rain in a car at night, cars driving on a highway during rain. He keeps track of storm reports and is always ready to jump in his truck to drive out to where the best rain is. A video from 2013, “Rain Sounds With No Music 90 Mins Sleep Sounds,” has 9,319,324 views.

In the morality play of our fraught relationship with technology, screen time is frequently cast as a villain, and one of its principal crimes is robbing us of our sleep. Exposing the eye to the unnatural brightness of an iPad before bed can inhibit the release of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate our circadian rhythms. The unceasing mental engagement takes its toll as well. Twitter can feel like a 24-hour diner near the bus station — a brightly lit place where you can set your suitcases down and scroll away the night. Sometimes, however, what technology takes away with one hand, it gives back with the other. As Duke discovered, there is a restorative role for the nighttime internet: as a mothering machine dispensing on-demand lullabies. Of all the ways in which the internet can bring people together, its quiet corners for shared sleep may be one of its greatest achievements.

Sites like O’Connor’s offer to counteract the internal noise of our unquiet thoughts with external noise of a certain alchemical mix — a silence that isn’t silence. “Wind noise is a natural source of white noise,” explains the site Mynoise.net, on a track that promises “The Sound of Wind, without messing your hair.” We tend to use the term “white noise” for any soothing, repetitive sound, but in fact there is an entire color spectrum associated with noise: pink noise, blue noise, violet noise, grey noise. White noise is spectrally flat, meaning that all frequencies are at an equal volume. For some, the sound produced can feel grating — everyone’s ears are different, and some sections of the spectrum may sound more vivid for us than others. (Blue and violet noise emphasize higher frequencies; I clicked on a sample of violet noise and was lunging for the pause button after just a few seconds.) Rain of different intensity and in different environments can sound sharper or more mellow, but its variations fall into the general category of pink noise, which tends to be considered a better choice for sleep purposes: its lower frequency spectrum is louder, compensating for the comparatively easily apprehended high tones.

On Mynoise.net, created by a signal processing engineer from Belgium named Stéphane Pigeon, users can fiddle with the dials to calibrate audio environments for themselves. One section of the site is given over to “drones,” meaning one unbroken note or chord. Each track emits a vibrating tone, and the listener can control which frequencies they want to emphasize in the mix. On a drone called “Ice World,” the colored levers control the trebles, mids, and bass registers. “Ice World” is meant for meditation rather than sleep, and its drone is meant to scatter your thoughts, making it hard to focus on anything but the slight variations of sound.

Imagination aids and sleep aids are not necessarily at odds with each other — part of what people seem to be looking for in relaxation sounds and videos is to be transported outside of themselves. Going to a café costs money, but listening to “Relaxing Sounds of Busy Cafe Ambient Noise for Creative Productivity – 2 hrs” on YouTube is free. People who work in busy environments can use pink noise to tune out background noise, replacing it with an enveloping hum. Hospital patients and people living in windowless rooms who want to feel connected to the outside world can cue up four hours of English morning birdsong. Mynoise.net offers the ability to enter and customize the aural space of disparate places. Inside an audio environment like “Berber Tent,” 10 sliders of different colors control the volume of different tracks. Raise the red slider and the sound of a tent door flapping in a gust of wind gets louder; raise the turquoise slider and the whoosh of a gas stove dominates. The purple slider is pots and pans, and the green slider conjures the sound of snoring. “It reminds me of days I’d spend with my grandparents in Syria when I was about 13,” a commenter wrote. “My grandma focused on preparing dinner or cleaning around, my grandfather sporadically dozing off.”

For some listeners, these are the sounds of home, while for others they may connote travel. But for the duration of the audio experience, all are mentally inhabiting the same space, listening to the same birds singing, the same door flapping open to the desert.

O’Connor’s viewers behave differently from other YouTube viewers. “People don’t click on these videos,” he told me. “They watch.” Either because they are asleep or because they are hypnotized, viewers stay with these videos, often for the full eight or 12 hours that the track runs. “It’s crazy — hours in, people will say, ‘Oh, did you see that bird fly by?’” (Whether the viewer is asleep or awake doesn’t register on YouTube’s metrics — every minute that the video plays drives up that YouTube channel’s value.) O’Connor’s construction site videos, he says, are “like Citizen Kane for two-year-olds” — they watch in silence for hours.

Preparing for sleep with strangers from all over the world creates a virtual cocoon, all of us tacitly showing our vulnerability, telling each other that it is safe to let go

In the popular imagination, “relaxation tapes” are for hippies: whale songs, tinkling crystals, the crash of ocean waves evoking some mystical patchouli-scented infinity. But the near-universal appeal of ambient noise has made for diverse communities around different framing of what can seem — to the naked ear — like similar sounds. Many are specifically for babies — a German YouTuber called KurtUndCarlos has a video offering ninety minutes of womb sounds that nearly knocked me out at my desk, and its comment board is full of parents chatting while they wait for their babies to fall asleep.

I emailed with a YouTuber called crysknife007 — a 30-year-old named Spike Snell who works as a user interface developer and lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas. To date, his chart-topper, “Star Trek TNG Ambient Engine Noise (Idling for 24 hrs),” which he uploaded in 2011, has been viewed 2,930,547 times. When he made the track, Snell wrote me, “I was living in a shed in the woods and I wanted to be able to pretend that I was aboard the Enterprise and reverberate the whole shed to that ambient ship noise.” He used a short sample of the engine noise from the show and then looped it several thousand times. Initially, he posted it as a joke, thinking only he and a few friends would be interested. But the video got noticed by Reddit, and then i09 wrote it up, and the video surpassed a million views.

Snell was gratified, but he thought it was a fluke. He continued to make and upload videos of his own noise music, which he makes under the name Cheesy Nirvosa, as well as other sci-fi and geek sounds: the Super Mario Brothers “mushroom sound” for one hour, Dr. Who TARDIS ambient engine sound for 10 hours. But after a few years he noticed that the Star Trek 24-hour engine noise video was still getting the most hits — some eighty percent of his channel’s traffic on any given day — and that people would watch it for hours at a time. “Originally I saw it as more of an imagination aid,” Snell wrote. “After a while, mostly because of what people wrote in the comments, I realized that a lot of people use them to help sleep and that another big portion of people use them to focus on other tasks like studying or working.”

Snell prints out some of his favorite comments and sticks them to his fridge: “Just wanted to say thanks for this. I’ve had difficulty sleeping since deploying to Iraq in 2005. Blade Runner is one of my favorite films and this helps me to fall asleep at night. Thanks from a very grateful veteran that hasn’t sleep well in 10 years. You don’t know how much this has helped me.”

Sleep is fundamentally frightening. It demands that we loosen, and then lose, our grip on our surroundings, our companions, and ourselves. At night-time, we’re visited by all the unwelcome thoughts we successfully push back during daylight hours: to-do list items left undone morph into thoughts of money we aren’t sure of earning, friends we worry about losing, love we’re not sure of having, and life choices we’re afraid of making. From an evolutionary standpoint, it seems maladaptive; asleep, we are blind, defenseless, vulnerable to all manner of predation.

After our phone conversation, O’Connor sent me a link to a video in which I had expressed an interest: “The Sound of Bacon.” It’s eight hours of bacon frying. The high-definition camera is zoomed in for a tight close-up, and it captures every breaking bubble in the rising lake of fat. From time to time, O’Connor’s tanned hand enters the frame with a silver fork, as he adds a raw strip or lifts out a crispy one. It’s oddly mesmerizing, like watching someone rake gentle lines into the sand of a Zen garden. The hand tenderly nudges the bacon into a straight row, settling its pink and white stripes comfortably against the bottom of the black cast-iron pan. Slowly but surely — there’s no rush, we have eight hours ahead of us — each bacon strip fulfills its destiny, darkening and curling like its fellows. The pan is never empty, as a new pink strip is added for each dark red one that is taken away, so there is always an intergenerational camaraderie in the skillet.

“Good night from Germany,” writes Saphy007, on a four-hour video of a thunderstorm. “Sleep well … from the Netherlands,” writes Adriana Bonita. “Good night,” Fazlox chimed in a year later

It’s reassuring to know exactly what will happen: The natural progression of bacon through time seems to comfort all my anxieties about the unpredictable nature of existence itself, and to restore my faith in cosmic continuity. The irregular yet consistent sizzle and spit of the hot oil sounds like rain (O’Connor made the video because so many people commented that the rain videos sounded like bacon; he cooked three pounds of bacon to make a 45 minute video, then looped the footage 10times). I can close my eyes without fearing that the world itself will disappear.

My mother hates singing. As children, my sister and I didn’t fall asleep to lullabies; we had a boombox positioned in the middle of our shared bedroom, and every night we fell asleep to storytapes of British actors reading children’s books: The Wind in the Willows read by Kenneth Williams, Black Beauty read by Cori Samuel. I always pretended to be asleep when it was my turn to get up and turn over the tape. As an adult, I’ve been listening to the same two David Sedaris audiobooks almost every night for the past 10 years. I could try something new, but that would defeat the purpose — these stories (bootlegs a friend recorded on CDs for me from a library copy) don’t keep me awake because I already know how they end.

“I have the happiest channel on all of YouTube,” O’Connor told me. “Every single night, people all over the world write to me to say goodnight.” It’s true. “Good night from Germany,” writes Saphy007, on a four-hour video of a thunderstorm. “Sleep well … from the Netherlands,” writes Adriana Bonita. Videos stay up for years with streams of new viewers, which makes for a very long and polite bedtime leave-taking. “Good night,” wrote xXE4GLEyEXx2 two years ago. “Good night,” Cory Baxter replied (and got three likes). “Good night,” Fazlox chimed in a year later. “Good night,” MrDude447 and rorshach1985ify chorused back.

Sleeping is generally something we do alone, or in the company of people with whom we are very intimate. Preparing for sleep in a virtual space shared with strangers from all over the world creates a virtual cocoon, all of us tacitly showing our vulnerability, telling each other that it is safe to let go. The childhood car ride in the rain that Duke referenced draws its emotional weight from that recollected feeling of safety — someone else is keeping watch, steering us through the natural cycles of the planet with both hands on the wheel.

In a globalized yet fragmented world, our sleep resembles the sleep of others in a way that other experiences related to the body don’t — we eat different foods, live in different climates, enjoy or endure different kinds of sex lives. Even the air we breathe is of increasingly different qualities in different parts of the world. But the act of falling asleep requires the same trust, though the dangers of what might happen while we sleep are unevenly distributed. I can’t help but wonder if two people, continents apart, who fall asleep to the same rainstorm somehow rise more in tune with each other than when they lay down.

Linda Besner’s most recent book is Feel Happier in Nine Seconds. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Boston Review, the Globe & Mail, and Enroute, and aired on CBC Radio. She lives in Montreal.