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For light sleepers, silence isn’t golden

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The White Noise iPhone application has 40 ambient sounds for users to choose from. (Photo courtesy of TMSOFT)

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It can be hard for some light sleepers to find the perfect fan. (Photo by Leslie Barrie/CNS)

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For some light sleepers, oscillating fans provide the perfect night's sleep. (Photo by Leslie Barrie/CNS)

It was 2 o’clock in the morning when the room went silent. Katie Mlod woke up instantly and knew right away what had gone wrong. Mlod’s trusty fan, the one that had pulled her through many sleepless nights with its perfect oscillation and constant hum, had died. She couldn’t get back to sleep.

Nor could she easily pick up a replacement during her hunt, which began the next day. “Do you know how hard it is to find a fan in an Ohio winter?” asks Mlod, 31, a special-education teacher turned stay-at-home mom from Fairborn, Ohio, and a member of the I Can’t Sleep Without a Fan group on Facebook.

Mlod, like many Americans, is a light sleeper. And like many light sleepers, she needs some sort of ambient sound to help her doze off. Fans have always been a popular option, as have devices that reproduce the sounds of a trickling stream or rain shower. With digital technology, the offerings have become more sophisticated—call it the 2.0 generation of white noise. Now people in need of acoustic therapy can request custom-made sounds, download white-noise applications for the iPhone and connect with each other through Facebook groups. White noise is no longer static.

“The fast-paced modern world creates a lot of stress in people’s lives, which affects sleep,” says Lee Bartel, associate professor of music at the University of Toronto and the creator of Sonicaid’s “Music to Promote Sleep” CD, as well as 34 other rest-related CDs. “The current economic stress has added to people’s sleeping problems. There’s now a chronic lack of sleep.”

Like Bartel, Todd Moore, 35, has been capitalizing on the seemingly insatiable need for sounds to sleep by with his hit iPhone applications White Noise, White Noise Lite and White Noise Storm. White Noise, with eight sounds, came first. Moore began offering it as a free download last August. Demand was so high, with so many requests for variations and higher-quality sounds, that Moore developed an extended version, which became available in late January. For 99 cents, users get more than 40 ambient sounds—frogs, ocean, heartbeat and fireplace, to name a few. With White Noise Storm, also 99 cents, they can adjust the speed and intensity of the rain, wind and thunder. All applications allow users to set a time limit for how long the sound will play.

Of the many sounds Moore has produced—all from noises he has heard and recorded in and around his home in Washington, D.C.—the most popular has been rain. “I’ve been asked to do rain on leaves, rain on a tin roof, rain on concrete,” Moore says. “Everyone wants rain with some kind of effect to it. I literally think that when there’s rain, the whole nation has a good night’s sleep.”

People have asked for rather peculiar sounds, and most of the time, Moore has tried to oblige.

“Some lady said she had to sleep with her hair dryer on, so she e-mailed me and asked if I could please add a hair dryer because she’s burning up six a year,” Moore recalls. “I thought, Oh my gosh, I better make this, because she’s going to burn the house down.”

Brian Imus, 26, a police officer from Portland, Ore., has developed some interesting habits of his own so that he can sleep with a fan without upsetting his wife. She doesn’t like the air blowing on her, so Imus, who likes both the breeze and the sound of the fan, angles it upward from the floor and leans his head off the bed slightly so that air streams right into his face—just the way he likes it.

Ross Bryan, 23, a computer support specialist from Ontario started the Facebook group People Who Must Sleep With the Fan On (Even in Winter, Dammit) to attract people like Imus. Bryan had something of a revelation when he and a good friend discovered they both need a fan to get to sleep. “There are a lot more people than I would have thought that have this addiction,” Bryan says. “It’s not something that you would otherwise talk about with people,” he adds. Bryan’s group now has more than 1,600 members and is one of 20 related groups on Facebook.

Fans and other white-noise devices are a healthy alternative to sleeping pills, says Dr. Beth Malow, professor of neurology at Vanderbilt University. “I certainly think it’s safer than any medication you could take,” she says. “Listening to white noise can help break the cycle of not sleeping.” And sometimes after getting back into a regular sleep cycle, users can ditch the white noise altogether, she notes.

That would certainly be liberating for Mlod, who started sleeping with white noise when she was a little girl. “It is not something I would wish on anybody,” she says. “It’s a neurosis.”

Still, she can’t envision being able to live—or sleep—without a crutch. And whether she likes it or not, she develops strong attachments to her sleep helpers. When her fan died on that cold winter night, Mlod e-mailed a eulogy to her close friends and family describing the fan’s attributes and how she would miss it.

“It was silly,” she admits, “but it was a good fan.”

E-mail: lab2184@columbia.edu