How your morning alarm can set the tone of your day

The sound of your morning alarm really does matter when it comes to how awake you feel, according to a new study. However, the researchers were surprised at the type of alarm that seemed to best serve us.

A young woman wakes up the bed. the alarm on the smartphone is ringing
The ringtone of your morning alarm may have a significant impact on how lively you feel in the morning, according to new research.

Do you prefer to set your morning alarm on your smartphone or do you opt for an old-school alarm clock instead of an analog one?

Nowadays, there’s a wide range of options to choose from when it comes to the sound that wakes us up every morning.

But do our choices influence how awake we feel after the alarm rings, and how efficiently we perform our daily tasks?

According to a new study by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University in Melbourne, Australia, the answer is “yes.”

“If you do not wake up properly, your work performance may be degraded for periods of up to 4 hours, and this has been linked to major accidents,” says lead author Stuart McFarlane, a doctoral researcher at RMIT.

“You would assume that the startling ‘ beep beep beep ‘ alarm would improve alertness, but our data revealed that melodic alarms could be the key element. This has been unexpected,” he says.

McFarlane and his colleagues explain their findings in a study paper published in PLOS One.

Melodic alarms may improve alertness

Researchers worked with a group of 50 participants, focusing on self-reporting versus standard state measures called sleep inertia.

Experts define sleep inertia as a “transitional state between sleep and wake, marked by impaired performance, reduced vigilance, and a desire to go back to sleep.” The longer and more intense the sleep inertia is at first waking up.

In the study, the investigators used questionnaires to find out, on the one hand, what kind of morning alarms the participants usually opted for, and, on the other hand, how awake— or sleepy — they tended to feel in the morning.

Researchers found that while there was no significant association between actual sleep inertia and morning alarm sound, there was a significant association between the type of alarm tone and perceived sleep inertia.

As a result, people who used more melodic alarms reported feeling more alert in the mornings, while those whose alarms sounded more harsh, like that of intermittent beeping, said they felt groggy and less awake.

Although this may not at first appear to be an important subject of study, McFarlane argues that people in jobs that require immediate responsiveness — such as emergency nurses, for example — may benefit from current findings.

“[ The findings are] particularly important for people who may be working in hazardous situations shortly after waking up, such as firefighters or pilots, but also for anyone who needs to be alert quickly, such as someone driving to[ hospital] in an emergency,” says McFarlane.

“This study is important, as NASA astronauts report that sleep inertia affects their performance at the International Space Station,” adds co-author Adrian Dyer, associate professor at RMIT.

While it’s not clear why the sound of our alarms might influence how we feel when we wake up, the researchers have a hypothesis— not yet to be tested.

“We think that a harsh ‘beep beep beep’ might work to disrupt or confuse our brain activity when waking, while a more melodic sound like the Beach Boys’ [song] ‘Good Vibrations’ or The Cure’s ‘Close to Me’ may help us transition to a waking state in a more effective way.”

– Adrian Dyer

In the future, the continued study of how our chosen morning sounds could influence our state of alertness may have “important ramifications” for people’s well-being and productivity, according to McFarlane.

“If we can continue to improve our understanding of the connection between sound and waking state, there could be potential for applications in many fields, particularly with recent advancements in sleep technology and artificial intelligence,” Dyer points out.

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