At first, there was white, then pink, and finally brown. No, I’m not reporting the gradual transformation of my pasty Celtic skin on vacay. I’m listing the various color sounds on offer as miraculous sleep, focus, or relaxation aids. Along with ASMR chills, Youtube and TikTok are awash with such sonic hues, aimed at those (hello!) chronically powerless to doze off, concentrate, or wind down.
In today’s tech-addicted world of unrelenting stimulation, all sorts of people are turning to white noise (think the gentle hum of those fans keeping us from melting this summer) and pink noise (namely the soothing rustle of leaves in the wind and pitter-patter of rainfall soon to arrive with the solace of fall).
However, their trendier sibling brown noise is causing the biggest splash right now, especially among the neurodivergent community. Sometimes also associated with the color red, brown noise is fairly hard to describe: close to white noise, only deeper and with more bass; naturally-occurring yet more industrial.
White noise has long been this raucous-brained writer’s go-to, but it can be hit or miss. Brown noise, though? Works like a charm every time (chef’s kiss), as if trading my spaghetti junction of thoughts for a pillow made of angel wings. While I’ve never sought a formal ADHD diagnosis, I’m almost certain the disorder resides within me. Either that or I’m the most appallingly distracted, impulsive, restless, frustrated, mercurial, and anxious neurotypical human ever born.
What do our neurodivergent friends have to say? A lot, as it happens, and little of it negative.
Holly Matthews, 37, a self-development coach & former actress with combined-type ADHD, reckons brown noise eclipses its white equivalent. “I find white noise too jarring and have experimented with different similar sounds, but brown noise seems to hit the spot,” she tells me. “If I’m over-stimulated from a sensory perspective, I can put this on and it soothes.”
But for Holly—who actually starred in Byker Grove, one of my favorite shows as a kid—brown noise is no silver bullet. It needs a partner, such as the subtle murmur of a television on low volume. “In terms of focus, it helps to have something else on in the room, but not music as this takes my attention.”
Education consultant & tutor Jemma Zoe Smith, 30, was diagnosed with dyslexia 10 years ago, and both pink and brown noise have since helped. “I use them when I can’t stop my mind racing, when I need to sleep.”
However, the Oxford alum—whose musician partner thankfully works from a soundproofed studio in their home—thinks brown noise has an edge over pink for drowning out the worst-offending sounds. She says, “Brown noise is particularly helpful when I need to stop myself from focusing on annoying, repetitive noises. Once I become aware of a ticking clock, I find that it interrupts my focus until I can tune it out.”
Jemma explains that, because it helps subdue external sounds and elevate her internal voice, brown noise really proves its chops in louder spaces such as coffee shops. She then leaves me with this little bonne bouche: “I have even inadvertently typed the radio lyrics into emails that I am sending.”
Jemma, it appears, isn’t alone. “I find lyrics too distracting as I can accidentally write those words in my work,” remarks lifestyle & branding photographer Rebecca Douglas. The “ADHDer” admits she’d never heard of brown noise until asking the internet for its thoughts, but the trend now counts the 38-year-old among its fans. “I’ve been playing some today and loving it. It has helped me focus better in the office.”
And how does it stack up against the alternatives? “I think it is better than white and pink noise. The depth of its tone somehow facilitates focus more than the other two. The recording I’ve been listening to reminds me of the sea in the distance on a wild day, and it is just so soothing.”
Brown, pink, and white noise all exist in a variegated soundverse alongside a handful of other aural shades. Some swear by black noise, mainly comforting silence with the occasional wink of sound, while others prefer gray noise, largely indistinct from white. However, I can’t even talk about blue and violet noise, apparently a relief to anyone suffering from tinnitus. To me, they were like bullets packed with heebie-jeebies. Another second of either and I’d have wound up in the clutch of a full-on panic attack.
So why is brown noise so freakin’ good? In scientific terms, nobody genuinely knows, with brown noise still criminally overlooked by the research community. Previous studies have shown the positive effects of white noise on verbal working memory and cognitive performance in those with ADHD, but brown noise hasn’t yet been investigated to the same degree.
Perhaps Britta Hochkeppel, an experienced naturopath, kinesiologist & energy healer, can explain. “Brown noise, including the sound of thunder and strong waterfalls, can offer a deep sense of comfort and security because the subconscious recognizes it from past experiences and feeling safe,” she writes over email. “But the response will depend on the individual’s childhood memory recall and their personal energetic disposition. After all, everything is energy.”
According to Britta, exposure to such sounds can leave neurodivergent people “energized, refreshed, cleansed, and relieved, resulting in a soothing effect on the autonomic nervous system, in turn stimulating the Vagus Nerve.” And this, apparently, does wonders for the mind and body.
I’ll drink to that, but just soda water for me. As I hurtle toward 40 (gulp), I’m learning that alcohol, unlike brown noise, makes for a honkingly bad friend to ADHD symptoms. So does excessive smartphone use, which is a pain because that’s where the brown noise lives.
I’ve always needed saving from myself—my partner often has to remind me that that second glass of Sauvignon Blanc is a bad idea—but with age, I’m getting better at being my own caped crusader. Now prioritizing mental health, I’m making wiser choices and devising nifty wellbeing hacks. Two of my fave so far: mini bottles of wine for a single glass and, at night, replacing my phone with a second device loaded with only Youtube for those therapeutic sonic hues (genius).