“Binaural beats” are a specific kind of sound that can shape your brain activity to boost your concentration, enhance your creativity, and improve your mood. Listening to binaural beats is a free, safe, and increasingly popular way to help maintain good mental health. Read on to learn more about binaural beats and how they can be used to improve your mental clarity and health.
What Are Binaural Beats?
Binaural beats are an auditory illusion perceived by the brain when two slightly different frequencies of sound are played into each ear (bi – two, aural- ear).
When wearing earphones that are playing slightly different notes in each ear, our brain perceives the volume to pulse (oscillate) at a fixed rate. This is a called a ‘beat.’
An analogy is when tuning two guitar strings together, the closer together the frequencies become we begin to hear a slow pulsing beat between the notes of the two strings.
The rate (frequency) of a beat is equal to the difference in the two frequencies being played. For example, if you listened to two frequencies at 200 Hz and 210 Hz, the beat would be at a frequency of 10 Hz (or 10 “beats” per second).
How does this affect the brain? First, we need to know about brain waves.
The 5 Types of Brain Waves
The neurons in our brains use electrical signals to create our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. When large numbers of neurons fire together with the same rhythm (“synchronize”), this creates brain waves.
Brain waves can be measured with the use of electrodes on the scalp to record electrical signals, a technique called electroencephalography (EEG).
These brain waves can range from slow and loud (low frequency, high amplitude), to fast and quiet (high frequency, low amplitude).
There are 5 major categories of brain waves, each associated with different mental functions:
- Delta Waves (0.5-3 Hz): slow, loud brain waves associated with dreamless sleep, deep meditation, and healing [R]. (Click here to listen).
- Theta Waves (3-8 Hz): brain waves related to dreaming, spatial navigation, intuition, meditation, memory formation, alertness, creativity, and subconscious thinking [R, R]. (Click here to listen).
- Alpha Waves (8-12 Hz): the quiet resting state of the conscious brain, associated with working memory, calculations, and the coordination of thoughts [R]. (Click here to listen).
- Beta Waves (12-38 Hz): associated with active problem solving, complex and effortful thinking, motor control, high anxiety, excitement, and judgment [R]. (Click here to listen).
- Gamma Waves (38-100 Hz): the least-understood brain waves, believed to be involved in the integration of thought processes by linking information from different parts of the brain, active consciousness and self-awareness, peak cognitive functioning, and possibly spirituality [R, R, R, R]. (Click here to listen).
It is important to remember that at any given time, there are varying levels of each of these brainwave patterns occurring in our brain.
How Binaural Beats Affect the Brain
The part of our brain that first processes sound inputs from both ears is called the superior olivary complex, which is located in the brainstem. This brain area allows us to identify the direction of sounds [R].
Fig (a): Schematic depiction of the seeds in the auditory pathway: Primary auditory cortex (PAC); medial geniculate nucleus (MGN); inferior colliculus (IC); and superior olivary complex (SOC) [R].
The superior olivary complex is ‘tricked’ into hearing a beat when it senses two close frequencies, and it responds by synchronizing neuronal activity in other parts of the brain.
In other words, this part of the brain acts like the conductor of an orchestra, coordinating and synchronizing the activities of many neurons throughout the rest of the brain.
The idea behind binaural beats is that listening to them can increase the strength of certain brain waves throughout the brain, which can then enhance or suppress the different cognitive and emotional functions associated with different types of brain waves [R, R].
Entrainment isn’t unique to binaural beats but is a common aspect of brain function. For example, the brain activity of people with epilepsy can be easily entrained to a specific frequency of flashing lights. This causes many different parts of their brain to become synchronized, which “overloads” their brain, causing them to have a seizure [R].
Benefits of Binaural Beats
1) Binaural Beats Can Decrease Anxiety
Listening to just 3 minutes of gamma (40 Hz) binaural beats enhanced attention to specific visual details in a study with 36 participants (pilot study). [R].
Similarly, listening to 30 min of beta (16-24 Hz) binaural beats improved sustained attention and vigilance in 29 participants (BD-PCT) [R].
Also, one pilot study with 20 subjects found that listening to binaural beats regularly for 3 weeks led to self-reported improvements in attention in students with ADHD (DB-RCT) [R].
3) Binaural Beats Can Improve Memory
Binaural beats can boost several different types of memory.
Working memory capacity (the ability to recall and retain multiple pieces of information) increased when a group of 28 participants listened to alpha binaural beats (BD-PCT) [R].
A study in 32 participants found that long-term memory improved after listening to binaural beats in the beta range (20 Hz), but decreased after listening to theta (5 Hz) binaural beats (BD-PCT) [R].
However, another study showed that listening to 15 min of theta (5 Hz) binaural beats improved short-term verbal memory in 20 participants (BD-PCT) [R].
4) Binaural Beats Can Improve Mood and Emotional State
Listening to 30 min of theta (7 Hz) binaural beats daily decreased tension, confusion, and fatigue in 8 study participants (uncontrolled pilot) [R].
5) Binaural Beats Can Enhance Creativity
In 24 participants, listening to just 3 minutes of either alpha (10 Hz) or gamma (40 Hz) binaural beats improved divergent thinking, an aspect of creativity which refers to the ability to come up with multiple answers to a problem (BD-PCT) [R, R].
6) Binaural Beats Can Reduce Pain
7) Binaural Beats Can Help With Meditation
Listening to 30 min of theta (6 Hz) binaural beats enhanced the patterns of brain activity associated with a deep meditative state in 28 participants (non-blind controlled study) [R].
8) Binaural Beats Can Enhance Cognitive Flexibility
Cognitive flexibility (or multi-task thinking) was enhanced in 40 participants who listened to just 3 minutes of gamma (40 Hz) binaural beats (BD-PCT) [R].
9) Binaural Beats Can Improve Sleep Quality
An uncontrolled pilot study with 15 participants found that listening to binaural beats in the theta range (2-8 Hz) during sleep improved perceived sleep quality [R].
Side Effects of Binaural Beats
Listening to binaural beats is a relatively safe, simple, and flexible technique for altering or enhancing the function of your brain. The frequency, volume, and duration of listening can be easily tailored to your individual needs.
However, several studies have noted potential unwanted side effects.
Nonetheless, these adverse side effects are only temporary and can be easily avoided by watching out for them and avoiding listening to any binaural beats that cause any unwanted effects.
Finally, while listening to binaural beats alone can be irritating or distracting for some people, another option is listening to them embedded in relaxing music, such as this.
Limitations and Caveats
Most research findings so far show that listening to binaural beats generally coincides with, but does necessarily cause positive changes in mental health.
Individuals may have varying reactions to listening to binaural beats and should, therefore, try to find which are best suited for their personal needs.
The scientific community is still debating if binaural beats can enhance cognitive function. More research needs to be done.
Of course, since binaural beats are widely and freely available, as well as relatively safe to try, there isn’t much to lose from personal experimentation to see if they work for you.
There have not been any identified drug interactions with the effects of listening to binaural beats.
Binaural beat therapy (BBT) can complement an existing treatment and can be used as a potential stand-alone tool to try for those whose symptoms are not severe enough to interfere with day-to-day functioning. People whose symptoms are more bothersome or severe should not use BBT instead of therapy.
The effectiveness of listening to binaural beats is dependent on the listener. Some people will find listening to binaural beats helpful for the symptoms they are experiencing, while others might find them irritating or ineffective.
One user had a very successful experience listening to binaural beats frequently to enhance meditation and during times of acute anxiety.
Listening to binaural beats for twenty minutes dramatically helped one user to improve migraines.
One user finds listening to binaural beats to be very beneficial to calm anxiety and process “old emotions from [her] experience”.