“Binaural beats” are a specially designed type of sound intended to boost your concentration, enhance your creativity, and improve your mood. Listening to binaural beats is free, safe, and increasingly popular; proponents claim it can help maintain good mental health. Read on to learn more about binaural beats.
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 called a ‘beat.’
The same phenomenon arises when tuning two guitar strings. As the frequencies get closer together, 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 between the two frequencies being played. For example, if you listened to two frequencies at 200 Hz and 210 Hz, the beat would arise at a frequency of 10 Hz (or 10 “beats” per second).
But how could this affect the brain? To answer this question, we first need to know about brain waves.
- May reduce anxiety and improve mood
- May improve focus, attention, and memory
- May increase creativity and cognitive flexibility
- May help you enter a meditative state
- Linked to improved sleep quality
- May increase feelings of depression
- Some participants reported negative emotions (anger, confusion, anxiety)
- Available studies are small and low quality
Rhythm & Your Brain
The part of our brains that first processes sound inputs from both ears is called the superior olivary complex, which is located in the brain stem. This brain area allows us to identify the direction of sounds .
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) .
The superior olivary complex can be ‘tricked’ into hearing a beat when it senses two close frequencies; 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.
This synchronization of neural activity across different brain areas is called “entrainment” and is the main way that binaural beats cause changes in our brain waves [3, 4, 5].
The idea behind binaural beats is that listening to them could increase the strength of certain brain waves throughout the brain. According to some researchers, binaural beats could then enhance or suppress the different cognitive and emotional functions associated with different types of brain waves [6, 7].
Entrainment isn’t unique to binaural beats; in fact, it 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, leading to a seizure .
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 . (Click here to listen to a 0.9 Hz binaural beat.)
- Theta Waves (3-8 Hz): brain waves associated with dreaming, spatial navigation, intuition, meditation, memory formation, alertness, creativity, and subconscious thinking [10, 11]. (Click here to listen to a 7 Hz binaural beat.)
- Alpha Waves (8-12 Hz): the quiet resting state of the conscious brain, associated with working memory, calculations, and the coordination of thoughts . (Click here to listen to a 12 Hz binaural beat.)
- Beta Waves (12-38 Hz): associated with active problem solving, complex and effortful thinking, motor control, high anxiety, excitement, and judgment . (Click here to listen to a 20 Hz binaural beat.)
- Gamma Waves (38-100 Hz): the least-understood brain waves. Some researchers believe that gamma waves are 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 [14, 15, 16, 17]. (Click here to listen to a 40 Hz binaural beat.)
At any given time, varying levels of each of these brainwave patterns occur in the brain.
Benefits of Binaural Beats
Binaural beats have not been approved by the FDA for medical use and generally lack solid clinical research. Talk to your doctor before attempting to use them for any health reasons.
Insufficient Evidence For
The following purported benefits are only supported by limited, low-quality clinical studies. There is insufficient evidence to support the use of binaural beats for any of the below-listed uses. Remember to speak with a doctor before using binaural beats, and never use them in place of something your doctor recommends or prescribes.
In a small study of 15 people, those who listened to binaural beats in the theta frequency range (3-8 Hz) for 30-minutes had reduced symptoms of mild anxiety [18, 19].
Also, multiple studies have shown that listening to binaural beats is associated with reduced preoperative anxiety in surgical patients [20, 21, 22, 23].
2) Focus & Attention
In a small study of 36 people, those who listened to just 3 minutes of gamma (40 Hz) binaural beats had enhanced attention to specific visual details .
Similarly, people who listened to 30 min of beta (16-24 Hz) binaural beats had better sustained attention and vigilance .
Also, one pilot study with 20 students with ADHD found that those who listened to binaural beats regularly for 3 weeks self-reported improvements in attention (DB-RCT) .
According to a few promising studies, binaural beats could potentially boost several types of memory.
Working memory (the ability to recall and retain multiple pieces of information) increased after a group of 28 participants listened to alpha binaural beats .
A study of 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 .
However, in another study, participants who listened to 15 min of theta (5 Hz) binaural beats had better short-term verbal memory .
4) Mood and Emotional State
In a small study, participants who listened to 30 min of theta (7 Hz) binaural beats reported less daily tension, confusion, and fatigue .
After listening to beta (16 and 24 Hz) binaural beats, 29 participants felt a more positive mood and reduced feelings of depression .
In a study of 24 participants, those who listened to just 3 minutes of either alpha (10 Hz) or gamma (40 Hz) binaural beats had improved markers of divergent thinking, an aspect of creativity which refers to the ability to come up with multiple answers to a problem [31, 32].
6) Pain Perception
Listening to binaural beats in the theta range (6 Hz) was associated with reduced pain severity in 28 people with chronic pain .
In one study, participants who listened to 30 min of theta (6 Hz) binaural beats had an easier time entering a deep meditative state. Meditation is associated with reduced stress, and some studies suggest that it may reduce blood pressure, inflammation, and perception of pain; thus, binaural beats could be a helpful tool for people who meditate to improve their health [34, 35].
8) 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 .
9) Sleep Quality
In a small study of 15 participants, perceived sleep quality improved while listening to binaural beats in the theta range .
Limitations and Caveats
Binaural beat therapy (BBT) can complement an approved medical 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. (BBT) should never be used instead of conventional therapies prescribed by your doctor. Always talk to your doctor before adding a complementary strategy like BBT to your daily routine.
Most research findings so far show that listening to binaural beats is generally associated with, but does necessarily cause positive changes in mental health. Additional research is required to establish a true causal link.
The scientific community is still debating whether binaural beats could enhance cognitive function. More research needs to be done.
Individuals may have varying reactions to listening to binaural beats. It may take some experimentation to find which are best suited for their personal needs; however, binaural beats are widely and freely available and considered relatively safe to try.
The effectiveness of binaural beats is dependent on the listener. Some people will find listening to binaural beats helpful for various mental symptoms or concerns, 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.”
Side Effects of Binaural Beats
Listening to binaural beats is a relatively safe, simple, and flexible technique. The frequency, volume, and duration of listening can be easily tailored to your individual needs.
However, several studies have noted potential unwanted side effects.
For example, a few studies have found that listening to binaural beats was associated with increased feelings of depression [19, 38].
Additionally, some people who listened to binaural beats experienced temporary increases in anxiety, anger, and confusion [38, 34].
These adverse side effects are temporary and can be easily avoided by watching out for them and avoiding listening to any binaural beats that preceded unwanted effects.
According to some early research, people who listened to various types of binaural beats experienced improvements in anxiety, cognitive function, creativity, and even pain perception. These studies have, so far, been very small and of relatively low quality, but their results are promising. Future research will determine whether binaural beats can actually cause improvements in these areas. In rare cases, people who listened to binaural beats reported side effects of negative emotions like anxiety, anger, confusion, and depression. Talk to your doctor about incorporating binaural beats into your health strategies.