“Deep in the eastern slopes of the snow-capped Andes lies a mystical region largely untouched by mankind…”
Imagine a soothing voice narrating softly as listeners close their eyes and snuggle into their beds.
“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 Actually it doesn’t matter. The story wants one thing above all: to put its listeners to sleep.
According to the CDC, around 70 million Americans struggle with chronic sleep problems. To remedy this, many adults bring back a childhood staple: the bedtime story. The above snippets are from a 45-minute story on the Calm subscription app.
Many of the 2,500+ meditation apps on the market offer nighttime relaxation aids. Dozens of podcasts like 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 like Michael Bublé and Idris Elba lend their voices to these comforting stories.
One genre of these bedtime stories stands out for adults: travel stories. Almost a third of Calm’s 300 bedtime stories (which have been listened to more than 450 million times) are about travel, particularly adventure travel. About 45 percent of the bedtime stories on the Breethe app (which has been downloaded more than 10 million times) are travel-related. Earlier this year, half of the top 10 bedtime stories were about travel.
Why do travel stories lull you to sleep so reliably?
By train to Slumberland
Travel bedtime stories are usually an audio retelling of a trip, often in the present tense, as if we were there standing next to the narrator. It can be a day in the therapeutic waters of Bath, England. Or it could be a visit to the remote and mountainous Kingdom of Bhutan. Or a richly illustrated imaginary journey to “see” the Northern Lights in Norway.
Listeners can take part in Nile cruises, sailing trips to Sri Lanka, arduous pilgrimages such as the Camino de Santiago, hot air balloon rides over Cappadocia in Turkey, or car rides along Route 66. The stories rely heavily on description, with occasional environmental sounds such as ocean waves, train tracks, or soft music.
Railway stories seem to be particularly fascinating at bedtime. Headspace, Calm, and Breethe have steadily expanded their railway-themed content. Listeners can travel on the Orient Express or the Trans-Siberian Railway. Headspace has a popular story called “Slow Train” that changes the ambient sounds of the train in the background and changes the spoken descriptive details regularly. It consistently ranks in the top five most popular bedtime stories on the app.
“A bedtime story needs movement—when things are static, it’s too boring and the listener gets fidgety,” says Martha Bayless, professor and director of the University of Oregon’s Folklore and Public Culture Program, specializing in oral history from antiquity until modern times. “But the movement doesn’t have to be threatening and reassuring. And for modernity, what could be better than the movement of a train?”
Trains appeal to the senses in a gentle way, with a constant urge to move forward. When it comes to train travel, “the choices aren’t in your hands,” says Bayless. “The train is the perfect vehicle for sleeping. You can just take it with you wherever you go, enjoying the gentle rocking, rhythmic sound, and feeling like you’re at ease in an old-fashioned, soothing way of travelling.”
The same isn’t true for audio stories about air travel, Bayless points out: “Imagine trying to sleep while you’re squished into an airplane seat with a passenger on top of you!” In other words, stories that are too close to life , could backfire as bedtime stories.
How it works
According to Rachel Salas, a neurologist and associate medical director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep and Wellness, bedtime stories help some people get more restful sleep. More restful sleep helps the body better regulate everything from digestion to cognitive performance American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
Bedtime stories work on one level because they are a good distraction that keeps the mind from worrying, going through to-do lists, or stoking anxiety. Selected stories tend to be positive and upbeat (but not overly exciting), which can calm a troubled mind.
One possible reason our brains are soothed by bedtime travel stories is because of “mirror neurons,” says Salas. Originally discovered in the macaque, these neurons fire both when a subject makes a specific movement and when the movement is merely observed.
(PPlanning a short vacation is good for you-here’s why.)
Salas says these brain cells could conflate our own experiences with someone else’s. For example, a story about a train journey might trigger a sense of nostalgia for our own past travels, even if the specific bedtime story is about something we didn’t experience. The comforting feeling of something familiar and romantic can aid in relaxation and sleep. Also, Salas says, the sound of a train chugging along the tracks serves as a kind of white noise, lulling people to sleep.
For some people, the allure of bedtime travel stories may be that they open doors to new adventures. While this may seem stimulating, it brings a reassuring certainty to see the world safely.
“From a neurological perspective, it’s not just the idea of traveling and seeing new places, it’s about connecting. We are social creatures by nature. We have time without family and friends behind us, away from freedom. Even if you haven’t traveled that much, you could still go out to a restaurant or try something new,” says Salas.
Or it could simply be that removing light and sound from the outside world allows an inside world, our imagination, to take over. Night time storytelling is ancient — “as old as literature,” says Bayless. “In a way, when we hear sleep stories, we look back to the dawn of human culture.”
“Not much happens in the most comforting bedtime travel stories,” says Bayless. “The bedtime stories are about the pause between adventures, that’s what sleeping is about.”