“Cozy up in bed,” says a quiet voice on an app on my phone. “Get nice and comfortable.” After telling me to take a few deep breaths–with a steady soundtrack of rain in the background–the voice launches into a droning, sleep-inducing bedtime story for adults.
The app, called Calm, originally began as a subscription service for meditation to help people generally relax. But the company decided to add the new feature of bedtime stories to help with the particular problem of insomnia.
Americans spent more than $40 billion on sleeping pills in 2015, but the drugs aren’t particularly effective and can have odd and sometimes dangerous side effects, from sleep-driving to memory loss.
“Insomnia is a huge issue, and we’ve been exploring a number of ways to help people fall asleep without resorting to medication,” says Michael Acton Smith, one of the co-founders of Calm. “We loved having bedtime stories read to us as kids and thought it could be fun and highly effective to create similar stories for grownups.”
The stories are tailored for sleep: the company’s original stories are written to begin in an engaging way–so people naturally pay attention instead of worrying about the next day–and then become calmer. The narration gradually becomes softer, with longer pauses between each word.
“We are helping the mind shift from a beta state of brainwave activity (typically 12-40 hertz) to an alpha state (8-12 hertz) and then into theta (5-8 hertz),” says Smith.
The app also has some classic short stories. Others are based in nature or travel; one upcoming story describes floating down the Amazon, and another puts you in a warm train car on the Trans-Siberian Express, watching pine forests outside. Quiet music and sound effects play in the background.
“My personal favorite is the one where Ferris Bueller’s teacher is reading a classic economics text in his famous drone,” says Smith of a story in development now. “I can barely last two minutes before I’m fast asleep.”
As I listened to the story, I didn’t fall asleep–but that was mostly because I was at work, not in bed, and actively trying to stay awake.