When I turn on my rain sounds, it’s like my brain can focus on the book in a way it can’t without it.
The sound is soothing and cozy, but also, something about the cadence of the rain sounds helps my brain unlock the cadence in the sentences I’m reading.
I don’t just get lost in the story when I’m reading to rain sounds — I get lost better in the language itself. The accentuation of the raindrops hitting the ground helps the words of classics or difficult nonfiction reads flow, move, to an invisible rhythm that I didn’t know I was missing. After reading a chunk of a book with rain sounds on, I often feel like I carry its plot points and sentences with me longer. I can put rain sounds on in my headphones, and the airplane, the café, my living room, they’ll all melt away and help me zoom in on the book I’m reading.
I even find myself wanting to write more after reading with white noise on. It’s like a certain cadence or rhythm has been unlocked in my brain. I prefer thunderstorms, ocean waves, and rain — I don’t like things like café sounds, crackling fires, or birdsong because I find them distracting. I prefer that constant but modulating sound of rain hitting a roof, the ground, the water. Something about it fills a gap and roots me better in the pages. Makes my sensory experience more focused. Makes me better feel my hands on the keys or the pen carving into a page.
But why? I decided to ask science.
So, our brains are always making their own kind of “noise.” It’s a jumbled “neural noise” of electrical signals and stimulation. Scientists theorize that for neurotypical people, white noise being added to that neural noise can help smaller neural signals get noticed and detected. They call this idea stochastic resonance (SR). White noise particularly helps lift cognitive performance for people with ADHD.
Scientists have found that dopamine levels might help modulate people’s base levels of neural noise. This…caught my attention. Low dopamine is associated with ADHD, depression, schizophrenia, restless legs syndrome, anxiety, and more — it’s also associated with mood swings, brain fog, and muscle spasms.
As a woman with generalized anxiety disorder, a history of depression, and a fibromyalgia diagnosis that comes with heavy brain fog and restless legs, this all makes a lot of sense. I’m a fidgety person. I’ve picked at my nails since I was five. I perform better if I’m multitasking, and I try to have a coloring book, embroidery, or some other small activity on hand to do during long meetings or movies so that I can keep my hands moving. I often have to watch myself to make sure I’m not multitasking in a way that’s too ambitious. I’m easily distracted by small sounds or bumps in the night. Before becoming medicated, I had a fierce case of insomnia.
Now, I wonder if I have a lower than “neurotypical” base level of neural noise. Maybe — particularly when my brain is foggy — it helps me to put on white noise because it pulls me back up to a better base level of noise, allowing me to focus my brain properly. Allowing my brain to draw out the signals of the book from the jumble of other stimulations raucously calling for my constant attention. This helps neurotypical people the same way — although some studies suggest that neurotypical people can play their white noise at lower volumes for the same effect.
So there it is: reading to ambient sounds might make reading better because of the science of our brains and because we’re overwhelmed by stimulation, but by upping our “neural noise” with an overlay of white noise, we can tune out what doesn’t matter — and focus in on just the pages of the book in front of us.
So turn on some good rain noises and get reading!
Want more reading insights? Check out Nikki DeMarco’s essay on what she wishes she could tell her younger self about reading, CJ Connor’s story on how books about queer elders gave them hope, or my essay about how getting lost taught me a better way to read.