MELBOURNE, Australia — What’s the first thing you do when the alarm clock goes off each morning? Take a shower? Make some coffee? For some, the answer is probably hit the snooze button. A new study finds many people deal with “sleep inertia,” the feeling of grogginess and lack of alertness from simply not being ready to wake up yet. To beat this, Australian researchers say the answer may be as simple as changing the sound of your alarm clock. Specifically, anything with a catchy tune is likely to make you feel rested and ready to go once it starts playing.
The team from RMIT University adds sleep inertia is a physiological phenomenon that can last for up to four hours. No matter where humans sleep, waking up can be a major problem — even in space!
“The morning started disastrously. I slept through two alarms, one set for 0600 and another a half-hour later to remind me to take some CEO (Crew Earth Observation) pictures. My body apparently went on strike for better working conditions,” a NASA astronaut aboard the International Space Station says.
While caffeine, light, and hot showers may cure morning grogginess, researchers discovered that certain sounds reduce sleep inertia as well. Their study reveals “melodic” tones, regardless of the musical genre, more effectively reduce sleep inertia in comparison to “unmelodic” beeping alarms.
Study authors define “melodic” music as anything that’s easy to sing or hum along to. So if you’re a fan of “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, waking up to the catchy song will probably give you a morning boost.
Waking up to music makes you sharper faster
To study just how effective waking up to music is, study authors designed a custom app to allow participants to wake up to different alarm sounds on their smartphone. After waking up, the group then had to immediately start a game-like task to measure alertness.
Participants had to touch their phones as quickly as possible when the color of certain shapes changed. It’s a similar test to those astronauts take in space to measure sustained attention.
“Melodic alarm sounds resulted in participants having faster and more accurate responses, compared with a control group who woke up using classic alarm sounds without melody,” the team writes in a university release.
Of course, not everyone gets to wake up at a preset time or even choose the sound they hear. Military or emergency service personnel immediately come to mind. The team looked at these alarm sounds too, examining how well various sirens wake the body up.
“We reviewed all the available research on both sound alarm design and awakening in different age groups,” researchers report. “This revealed that in emergency scenarios, children are also receptive to how alarm sound design affects their waking state.”
Researcher Stuart McFarlane and the team add low-pitched alarms or even the sound of a human voice appear to be more effective at reducing sleep inertia than a higher-frequency alarm or siren. The children in their study displayed better response times and memory skills when hearing lower frequency sounds.
Why are low-pitch sounds more effective?
Researchers believe the reason has to do with the way sound is processed by the inner ear and the brain. Previous studies have discovered that music activates certain brain regions which control attention. However, scientists are still trying to figure out how and why this takes place.
Based on their findings, researchers say modern technology makes overcoming sleep inertia a much simpler process.
“Digital audio is now readily accessible and easy to share, meaning that when we go to bed we can set ourselves an alarm consisting of almost any conceivable sound,” study authors conclude.
The team adds that more efficient alarms could even improve alertness in many other situations. These include preventing drivers from falling asleep at the wheel or helping astronauts maximize well-being and performance in space.
The study appears in the Journal of Sleep Disorders & Therapy.