“Deep within the eastern slopes of the snow-capped Andes mountains lies a mystical region largely untouched by mankind….”
Imagine a soothing voice softly narrating as listeners close their eyes and snuggle down in their beds.
“Tonight, we’ll 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 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 childhood staple: the bedtime story. The snippets above are from a 45-minute story on the subscription app Calm.
Many of the more than 2,500 meditation apps on the market offer nighttime relaxation help. 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 slumber.
These are not 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 including Michael Bublé and Idris Elba are lending their voices to these calming tales.
One genre of these bedtime stories stands apart for adults: travel stories. Nearly a third of Calm’s 300 bedtime stories (which have been listened to more than 450 million times) are about travel, particularly adventure travel. Some 45 percent of the bedtime stories on the app Breethe (which has been downloaded more than 10 million times) are travel-related. Earlier this year, half of the top 10 bedtime stories were travel-themed.
Why do travel tales so reliably put listeners to sleep?
On the train to slumberland
Travel bedtime stories are typically an audio retelling of a trip, often in present tense, as if we are placed there alongside the narrator. It may 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 an image-filled imaginary journey to “see” the Northern Lights in Norway.
Listeners can join in on cruises down the River Nile, sailing trips to Sri Lanka, arduous pilgrimages like the Camino de Santiago, balloon rides over Cappadocia, Turkey, or road trips along Route 66. The tales rely heavily on description, with occasional ambient noise like ocean waves, train tracks, or soft music.
Train stories are particularly intriguing at bedtime, it seems. Headspace, Calm, and Breethe have steadily increased their train-themed content. Listeners can journey the Orient Express or the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Headspace has a popular story called “Slow Train,” which alters the ambient train sounds in the background and changes up the spoken descriptive details regularly. 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 dull and the listener will get fidgety,” says Martha Bayless, a professor and the director of the University of Oregon’s Folklore and Public Culture Program, specializing in oral traditions from ancient to modern times. “But the movement has to be non-threatening and soothing. And for the modern day, what better than the movement of a train?”
Trains engage the senses in a gentle way, with a constant forward momentum. With train travel, “the decisions are out of your hands,” Bayless says. “The train is the perfect vehicle for sleep. You can just take it where it goes, enjoy the gentle swaying, the rhythmic sound, the sense that you’re cozied up in an old-fashioned, reassuring mode of travel.”
The same would not be true for audio tales about air travel, Bayless points out: “Imagine trying to sleep while squeezed into an airplane seat with a passenger reclining on you!” In other words: Stories that are too close to real life might backfire as bedtime tales.
How it works
Bedtime stories help some people get more restful sleep, according to Rachel Salas, a neurologist and the assistant medical director at 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 one level because they’re a good distraction that keeps the mind from worrying, running through to-do lists, or stirring anxiety. Selected stories tend to be positive and upbeat (but not too exciting), which can ease a troubled mind.
One possible reason why our brains are soothed by travel bedtime 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.
Salas says these brain cells might conflate our own experiences with someone else’s. For example, a tale of train travel could trigger a sense of nostalgia for our own past journeys, even if the specific bedtime story is about something we have not experienced. The comforting sense of something familiar and romanticized can help with relaxation and sleep. Additionally, Salas notes, the sound of a train chugging 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. While this may seem energizing, it brings a soothing reassurance about seeing the world safely.
“From a neurological standpoint, it’s not just the idea of traveling and seeing new places, it’s about connecting. We’re naturally social beings. We’ve been through time away from family and friends, away from freedom. Even if you weren’t someone who traveled that much, you were still able to go to a restaurant or try something new,” says Salas.
Or it might simply be that removing the light and noise from the external world allows for an internal world, our imagination, to take over. Nighttime storytelling is ancient—“as old as literature gets,” says Bayless. “In a way, when we’re listening to sleep stories, we’re harkening back to the very dawn of human culture.”
“In the most soothing travel bedtime stories, nothing much happens,” says Bayless. “The bedtime stories are about the lull between adventures, which is what sleep is also about.”
Hillary Richard is a journalist who writes about travel and wellness. You can find her on Twitter.