When a crew member aboard Star Trek‘s USS Enterprise is accused of sabotaging the futuristic ship, a noble Captain Jean-Luc Picard comes the accused traitor’s defense, delivering a grave message to his exploration corps:
“Have we become so fearful, have we become so cowardly, that we must extinguish a man because he carries the blood of a current enemy?” Picard asks a spaceship tribunal.
It’s a seminal moment in Star Trek: The Next Generation history, and in the background of Picard’s speech — like most every scene aboard the Enterprise — is the omnipresent drone of the starship’s powerful engine.
Curiously enough, this science fiction sound has expanded well-beyond the outer fringes of the galaxy: Today, common Earthlings listen to hours-long loops of the Enterprise’s incessant, deep, industrial hum. Many use it to sleep, others to work or concentrate. It’s a type of (perhaps unconventional) white noise: light ambient hums that muffle perturbing or bothersome sounds.
One particular Star Trek engine ambient soundtrack — which are all looped and created by musician and sci-fi enthusiast Spike Snell — has garnered over 3.4 million listens on YouTube, though there are a variety of Snell’s sci-fi recordings online. Snell originally began experimenting with long loops of spaceship sounds while living in a “shack in the woods.”
“I started obsessing a little bit on that deep rumbling noise as it felt like one of the key aspects of many sci-fi shows,” Snell said over email. “I had never imagined at that point so many others would be interested in it or other similar sounds.”
They are. A couple of years after posting the ambient space drones online, Snell started looking at the metrics. People were listening for hours at a time.
“I realized it was striking a heavy chord globally,” Snell said.
Snell said people give constant feedback, often folks commenting on YouTube. The spaceship engines, they say, give them relief from sleeplessness.
“Sometimes I print out the very best comments and put them on my fridge to remind myself that I’m not wasting all my time with this project,” Snell said.
White noise of all sorts really does help people sleep through the night.
“It distracts your brain,” Michelle Drerup, a psychologist who specializes in sleep disorders at the Cleveland Clinic, an academic medical center, said in an interview. “The white noise really creates a masking effect.”
Some people just leave a fan on. An air conditioner can do the trick. And there are countless apps that produce the sounds of waves, or rain.
“There’s not a criteria,” Drerup said, adding that different sounds just work for different people. After listening to the starship drone, she said, “it would meet the general definition” of white noise used for sleeping.
“It [the Star Trek drone] may be very reasonable for people,” agreed Shalini Paruthi, who practices sleep medicine at St. Luke’s Hospital in Missouri.
“If you can drown out some noise and make simple, monotonous, boring noise, that actually decreases the brain stimulation and allows the brain to sleep better.”
So however weird, or unconventional, the hum of the spaceship engines can lull some people to sleep. And sleep, as you’re likely well-aware, is simply vital.
“Getting at least seven hours every night, consistently, is super important for optimal health,” emphasized Paruthi.
Whether they realize or not, everyone wakes up throughout the night, interspersed between deep sleep. Paruthi called these “normal physiological wakings” and said they typically occur four to seven times a night, depending on the person. Many of us just promptly go right back to sleep — and don’t realize we had ever even stirred, said Paruthi.
These awakenings are a bit like “safety checks,” explained Paruthi. Our brains awake and scan the environment, looking for changes or potential danger.
Evolutionarily, these awakenings make good sense — when we were a less domesticated species, and there were threats in the night.
“Safety checks were probably more important during sleep hundreds of years ago, but it’s something that’s still there,” said Paruthi.
Some of our brains, however, are more sensitive to any changes in sound, like traffic outside our houses, or other outside noise. These people may need a noise-masking effect. Like a low volume spaceship.
But in some cases, even the drone from an advanced starship can’t put everyone to sleep.
Insomnia — which generally means difficulty falling asleep or going back to sleep after waking up — is the most common sleep problem.
If it takes more than half an hour to go to sleep, or you try white noise for a couple weeks with no success, that could be a sign that there’s something medically awry, said Drerup. Then, visiting a sleep doctor would be a good idea. It could be allergies, a breathing problem, or something else.
Snell, the maker of the Star Trek soundtracks, also uses white noise to sleep. Snell once listened to the starship Enterprise while sleeping, but now prefers something more mundane, and certainly less galaxy-inspired.
“By far my preference is to sleep with a large box fan right next to my head,” Snell said.