The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than 70 million Americans now struggle with chronic sleep conditions—everything from insomnia to problematic sleep duration. And I certainly know that I could use more sleep (or better sleep) these days. If that sounds like you too, maybe we should try a popular remedy that most of us haven't utilized since we were kids. You see, a lot of adults are bringing back the bedtime story all of a sudden.
Dozens of podcasts, such as Sleep Cove and Sleep With Me, and online video channels, including Soothing Pod's YouTube channel, offer soothing voices softly narrating detailed stories. Even Audible now has an extremely popular “bedtime stories” section. But you needn't get lost in the specifics of what’s being talked about. This isn’t about learning new things, these shows exist merely to help your mind relax and lull you into a deep slumber.
These are not the same type of bedtime stories you remember from when we were kids, though. They're designed for grown-up minds. Which means they tend to be longer, more descriptive, meandering, and without the moral arc often found in kids' books. And everyone from Cynthia Erivo and Mathew McConaughey to Idris Elba and Harry Styles are lending their legendary voices to these calming tales on meditation apps like Calm.
According to National Geographic, one genre of these bedtime stories stands apart for adults: Travel narratives. Nearly a third of Calm's 300 bedtime stories (which have now been listened to more than 450 million times) are about travel—particularly adventure travel. And 45% of the bedtime stories on the app Breethe (which has been downloaded more than 10 million times) are travel-related.
Why? What makes these stories so dream-inducing? One possible reason why our brains are soothed by travel bedtime stories are “mirror neurons,” one neurologist at Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep told National Geographic. These brain cells might conflate our own experiences with someone else's. The comforting sense of something familiar and romanticized can help with relaxation and sleep—especially in hushed tones surrounded by gentle sounds.
It’s all tied into our “relaxation response,” a term coined by Dr. Herbert Benson in the 1970s, which refers to a physiological shift that happens when the body is no longer in flight-or-flight mode. According to Dr. Christine Won, associate professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine and the medical director of Yale Center for Sleep Medicine, they also drown out “self-sabotaging thoughts and worries, which allows the body’s adrenaline to come down so the brain can transition into the sleep state.” Spoken stories, more so than music or background noises, are more likely to force our mind’s attention away from whatever is causing stress.
Or it might simply be that removing the light and noise from the external world allows for an internal world, our imagination, to take over. Nighttime storytelling is ancient. And even getting a sleep story, called up via Siri through my Bluetooth-enabled smart alarm clock, is better for me than simply streaming another show before bed.
* FYI: Despite being something so innately physical, ASMR exists largely online. And who’s behind it? Nowness introduces us to some successful ASMR creators.