Do you prefer to set your morning alarm on your smartphone, or do you go full analog, opting for an old-school alarm clock instead?
Nowadays, there is a wide range of options to choose from when it comes to the sound that wakes us up every morning.
But do our choices influence how awake we feel after the alarm rings, and how efficiently we go about our daily tasks?
According to a new study from The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University in Melbourne, Australia, the answer is “yes.”
“If you don’t wake properly, your work performance can be degraded for periods up to 4 hours, and that has been linked to major accidents,” notes lead author Stuart McFarlane, a doctoral researcher at RMIT.
“You would assume that a startling ‘beep beep beep’ alarm would improve alertness, but our data revealed that melodic alarms might be the key element. This was unexpected,” he says.
McFarlane and his colleagues explain their findings in a study paper that appears in PLOS One.
The researchers worked with a group of 50 participants, and they focused on self-reports versus standardized measures of a state called “sleep inertia.”
Experts define sleep inertia as “the transitional state between sleep and wake, marked by impaired performance, reduced vigilance, and a desire to return to sleep.”
The longer and more intense the state of sleep inertia is upon first waking up, the more intense the feeling of grogginess, confusion, and clumsiness in the morning.
In the study, the investigators used questionnaires to find out, on the one hand, what type of morning alarm sounds participants usually opted for, and, on the other hand, how awake — or sleepy — they tended to feel in the mornings.
The researchers found that while there were no significant associations between actual sleep inertia and the sound of one’s morning alarm, there was a significant association between the type of alarm tone and a person’s perceived sleep inertia.
Thus, people who used more melodic alarms reported feeling more alert in the mornings, whereas those whose alarms had harsher sounds, like that of intermittent beeping, said they felt groggier and less awake.
While this may not, at first, seem like an important subject of study, McFarlane argues that people in jobs that require immediate responsiveness — such as emergency nurses, for instance — may benefit from the current findings.
“The findings are particularly important for people who might work in dangerous situations shortly after waking, like firefighters or pilots, but also for anyone who has to be rapidly alert, such as someone driving to [the] hospital in an emergency,” emphasizes McFarlane.
“This study is important, as even NASA astronauts report that sleep inertia affects their performance on the International Space Station,” study co-author Adrian Dyer, an associate professor at RMIT, also adds.
While it is unclear why the sound of our alarms might influence how we feel when we wake up, the researchers do have a hypothesis — yet to be tested.
“We think that a harsh ‘beep beep beep’ might work to disrupt or confuse our brain activity when waking, while a more melodic sound like the Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’ or The Cure’s ‘Close to Me’ may help us transition to a waking state in a more effective way.”
In the future, the continued study of how our chosen morning sounds could influence our state of alertness may have “important ramifications” for people’s well-being and productiveness, according to McFarlane.
“If we can continue to improve our understanding of the connection between sounds and waking state, there could be potential for applications in many fields, particularly with recent advancements in sleep technology and artificial intelligence,” Dyer suggests.
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