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Jan Van den Bulck
Jan Van den Bulck

Can a Meditation TV Show Help You Sleep Better?

The New York Times 2/14/21

Screens are pretty much the exact opposite of what one thinks of as being mindfulness-promoting. So I was a bit surprised when Wirecutter’s favorite meditation apps—Headspace and Calm—both expanded into the world of video streaming in the past year. Neither series, Netflix’s Headspace Guide to Meditation and HBO Max’s A World of Calm, claims to offer any sleep-inducement benefits. But the companies behind the apps both have sleep meditation courses and position themselves as tools for meditation and sleep in their ads. So I wondered how their TV shows would work as pre-bed streaming.

Like most people, I’ve heard the warnings about watching TV before trying to sleep. Yet at the end of a stressful day, the siren song of 30 Rock usually overpowers the introductory physics book I promised myself I’d finish. (I recently realized I didn’t understand how gravity works.) And I’m not alone—in my physics ignorance or in my bad nighttime habits. A 2011 National Sleep Foundation poll found that 86% of respondents (PDF) used their screens in the hour before going to bed (and this number is likely higher now that tablets and phones have become even more ubiquitous). But more recent research has indicated that the blue light illuminating our screens is detrimental to our sleep health, causing us to have trouble falling asleep and disrupting circadian rhythms. So even if you tend to fall asleep easily watching TV, doing so may not be helping your overall sleep quality (such as how deep your slumber is or how often you wake up at night).

According to Chris Advansun, Calm’s head of Sleep Stories and a writer/producer on A World of Calm, the producers considered the contradiction of using screens for relaxation: “Television for a lot of people can be a place of really gripping storytelling, and really racy and even anxiety-inducing news and information and entertainment. And what we’ve done is we brought a breath of fresh air … to that environment.”

It’s true that Calm’s episodes feel starkly more, well, calm than most content: In every episode, a celebrated actor speaks in a soft and reassuring voice over beautiful shots of things like the cosmos or the ocean. “Noodles,” the seventh episode of the series, features the soft voice of Oscar Isaac narrating a slow and tensionless tale about noodles. We see chef Mutsuko Soma wrapping strands of dough around her fingers—flour falling from them in a close-up, delicate as snow—before a long underwater shot of gently boiling noodles rolls across the screen. Each episode of the series plays out like this: no rising action, no climax, no stress. Similarly, every episode of Netflix’s Headspace Guide to Meditation features colorful animations explaining some history or theory of meditation, followed by a 10-minute guided meditation, all narrated by Headspace founder Andy Puddicombe, with his soothing British accent.

This content genre isn’t necessarily new. For decades now, David Attenborough’s rich baritone has been soothing millions of viewers alongside nature documentaries. But the fact that these shows are being explicitly advertised as peaceful escapes from reality tells you what viewers are seeking—especially during a stressful period when a lot of us are spending more time at home. “Although some people may turn to television as a source of binge-watching or distraction, it can also serve as a form of relaxation, inspiration, and education,” said Morgan Selzer, head of content for Headspace Studios’s Expansion Channels.

According to Dr. Jan Van den Bulck, a professor at the University of Michigan who researches media effects on sleep, that relaxation element may make these shows better soporifics than others, depending on who you are. Though blue light certainly plays a role in keeping people awake, Van den Bulck said the emotional response to what’s being viewed also has a big impact: “If you check the news right before bed, and it’s something that upsets you, then it’s the fact that you’re upset that’s going to keep you awake, and not necessarily the brief exposure to the light, even though that may be an extra factor.” But Van den Bulck said he’s aware that people experience stress from different sources—for one person noodles may be calming, but for someone who’s trying to cut carbs, noodles might cause nothing but resentment.

Read the full article by clicking on the title link.