Why do travelogues put people to sleep?

“Deep in the eastern slopes of the snow-capped mountains of the Andes lies a mystical region largely untouched by mankind…”

Imagine a soothing voice narrating softly as listeners close their eyes and snuggle up in bed.

“Tonight we will explore a place that seems to exist outside of time, where tropical jungles and grassy highlands exist in perfect harmony.”

Are you paying attention? In fact, it doesn’t matter. The story aims to do one thing: put its listeners to sleep.

According to the CDC, some 70 million Americans struggle with chronic sleep problems. To remedy this, many adults are bringing back a staple from childhood: the bedtime story. The excerpts above are from a 45-minute story on the Calm subscription app.

Many of the more than 2,500 meditation apps on the market offer nighttime relaxation support. Dozens of podcasts, such as Sleep Cove, and online video channels, including Soothing Pod’s YouTube channel, exist simply to lull adults into a deep sleep.

These aren’t your kids’ bedtime stories: adult stories tend to be longer, more descriptive, meandering, and without the moral arc often found in children’s books. Celebrities such as Michael Bublé and Idris Elba lend their voices to these soothing tales.

One genre of these bedtime stories stands out for adults: travelogues. Nearly a third of Calm’s 300 bedtime stories (which have been listened to over 450 million times) are about travel, especially adventure travel. Some 45% of bedtime stories on the Breethe app (which has been downloaded over 10 million times) are travel-related. Earlier this year, half of the top 10 bedtime stories were travel-themed.

Why do travelogues put listeners to sleep so surely?

On the train to slumberland

Bedtime travel stories are usually an audio account of a journey, often in the present tense, as if we were placed there next to the narrator. It can be a day in the healing waters of Bath, England. Or it could be a visit to the remote, mountainous kingdom of Bhutan. Or an imaginary trip filled with images to “see” the Northern Lights in Norway.

Listeners can take Nile cruises, sailing trips in Sri Lanka, strenuous pilgrimages like the Camino de Santiago, hot air balloon rides over Cappadocia, Turkey, or trips to car along Route 66. The tales rely heavily on description, with occasional ambient noise. like ocean waves, train tracks or soft music.

Train stories are especially intriguing at bedtime, it seems. Headspace, Calm, and Breethe have steadily increased their train-themed content. Listeners can take the Orient Express or the Trans-Siberian. Headspace has a popular story called “Slow Train”, which changes the ambient sounds of the train in the background and regularly changes spoken descriptive details. It consistently ranks among the app’s top five most popular bedtime stories.

“You need movement in a bedtime story – if things are static, it’s too boring and the listener will fidget,” says Martha Bayless, professor and director of the Folklore and Public Culture program at the University of Oregon, specializing in oral traditions from ancient to modern times. “But the movement should be non-threatening and calming. And for modern times, what could be better than the movement of a train?

The trains appeal to the senses in a gentle way, with a constant forward momentum. With train travel, “the decisions aren’t up to you,” says Bayless. “The train is the perfect vehicle for sleeping. You can just take it where it goes, enjoy the gentle rocking, the rhythmic sound, the feeling that you’re comfortably settled in a reassuring, old-fashioned mode of travel.

The same wouldn’t be true for audio stories about air travel, Bayless points out: “Imagine trying to sleep while you’re stuck in an airplane seat with a passenger lying on top of you!” In other words: stories that are too close to real life could backfire like bedtime stories.

How it works

Bedtime stories help some people get more restful sleep, according to Rachel Salas, neurologist and deputy medical director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep and Wellness. More restful sleep helps the body better regulate everything from digestion to cognitive performance, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

Bedtime stories work on some level because they are a good distraction from worrying, running through to-do lists, or causing anxiety. The stories selected tend to be positive and upbeat (but not overly exciting), which can soothe a troubled mind.

One possible reason why our brains are quieted by bedtime travel stories are “mirror neurons,” says Salas. Originally discovered in the macaque monkey, these neurons fire both when a subject performs a particular movement, as well as when the movement is only observed.

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Salas says these brain cells could confuse our own experiences with someone else’s. For example, a train ride story might trigger feelings of nostalgia for our own past journeys, even if the specific bedtime story is about something we haven’t experienced. The comforting feeling of something familiar and romantic can help with relaxation and sleep. Additionally, Salas notes, the sound of a train rolling along the tracks serves as a type of white noise that lulls people to sleep.

For some people, the fascination with bedtime travel stories may be that they open doors to new adventures. Although it may seem energizing, it brings a calming assurance of seeing the world safe.

“From a neurological perspective, it’s not just the idea of ​​traveling and seeing new places, it’s about connection. We are naturally social beings. We have gone through time away from family and friends, away from freedom. Even if you weren’t someone who traveled a lot, you could still go to a restaurant or try something new,” says Salas.

Or it may simply be that the suppression of light and noise from the outside world allows an inner world, our imagination, to take over. Nighttime storytelling is old — “as old as literature,” says Bayless. “In a way, when we listen to sleep stories, we go back to the very dawn of human culture.”

“In the most soothing bedtime travelogues, not much happens,” says Bayless. “Bedtime stories are about the lull between adventures, which is also about sleep.”

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