So fun story: when I was a kid, my mom used to tell me that if you fell asleep listening to music or the radio, it would brainwash you. Because your mind was in a suggestible state, you’d wake up as a zombie enslaved to consumerism. I could only assume that went for anything going in your ears, from a noisy party to an audiobook. Only when I met my partner did this misapprehension change. My sweet wife dozes off to the most lurid and violent crime novels you could possibly ask for, but has not, over the course of seven years, transformed into a slavering serial killer. Thus did I become interested in the myths and facts about listening to audiobooks in your sleep. And friends, it is interesting.
The Source of the Brainwashing Myth
I believe it’s possible that my mother had at one point read and then forgotten about most of Aldous Huxley’s famous Brave New World. Audio sleep-brainwashing is basically how the dystopian government in this book molds the minds of its specifically engineered citizenry.
Apparently this is also a well-established pop culture trope. As a writer myself, I can appreciate the potential for a convenient and easy plot device. It’s kind of perfect for a 26-minute episode, or even a car commercial, where I saw it played for a gag once. However, it doesn’t seem to hold any water in reality, partially because sleep learning is mostly garbage.
So if you listen to Inez of my Soul in Spanish as you sleep, will you awaken fluent? Alas, no. (Not that I haven’t tried.) Your brain is doing other stuff while you snooze, and while it’s somewhat aware of what’s going on around it, experts figured out in the ’50s that it doesn’t overall care much.
That said, it is possible to generate subconscious associations while you sleep. This seems to involve bombarding sleepers with bad smells, but there is some research suggesting that sleep learning can help you make very broad associations that can be helpful when you awake-learn the same material later.
So what does that mean for bedtime and your audiobook? Sadly, you’re not going to be a fully qualified consciousness researcher after sleep-binging Soul of an Octopus. However, if you kept it up and then eventually went to school for psychology, you might have a better time absorbing some specific pieces of information.
Strangulation, Hearing Loss, and Necrosis, oh my!
If you like to fall asleep with wired headphones on, then listening to audiobooks in your sleep might present you with a strangulation risk. Imagine listening to a book about the Boston Strangler only to find that the ghost of the fiend himself has returned in the guise of your trusty audio hardware! Thwart him by using wireless headphones.
Unless you’re worried about CANCER! Bluetooth headphones work via an invisible signal that technically counts as—gasp!—radiation. This has led certain excitable individuals to posit that they could prompt your body to generate tumors, and of course because the signal is going right through your head, those tumors would be in your brain. This is, in a word, bunk. Your cell phone emits far more radiation than your Bluetooth devices, and as far as anyone can tell, cancer rates haven’t risen with cell phone use. QED: you’re not going to get cancer from your headphones.
But the danger of listening to audiobooks in your sleep does not stop there! If your headphones block airflow into your ears, you can get NECROSIS. Necrosis! You’d know it if you saw it. It leads to gangrene and looks like hell! Scary as this sounds, necrosis is rare. Like, super rare. It’s “I found one article about one case and it’s over ten years old” rare. You’re much more likely to deafen yourself, because if you’re trying to drown out other noises so you can sleep, then you’re probably playing the book too darn loud.
What can I do about these rare yet horrifying medical problems?
Wireless headphone bands exist as a solution to necrosis and deafening volume, if you’re really nervous. But honestly, if customer service reps who wear headsets for eight hours a day aren’t dropping from ear necrosis, you’re probably fine.
Then again, there’s always open-air listening. If you happen to have a partner who is newly unafraid of being turned into a serial killer by your audiobooks, then your choice is easy. Share that dreamy experience of drifting off to the sound of a melodious voice reading about an extremely harrowing and unrealistic murder.