Binaural beats are really interesting and exciting concept. I’ve used them, and have found they work really well. However, when you do the research, it starts to get a little confusing. Whilst the claims that binaural beats directly affect brain waves are still unverified by scientific studies, the amount of people who have great experiences listening to them is undeniable.
In the article below, we explore some of the main points surrounding the issue, starting with something at the core of the discussion; separating brainwave entrainment and binaural beats into two different phenomena.
An example of pink noise (without Binaural Beats).
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Binaural Beats Explanation
Binaural beats have been played with since 1839 when they were discovered by Heinrich Wilhelm Dove. The more detailed explanations of them range from complex to really complex, so here’s two choices for you!
Simple explanation of binaural beats:
Binaural refers to the perceived beating or tones that appear when two very-slightly different tones play next to each other. In other words: you sing one note, I sing the same note but very, very slightly out of tune with it – and we may hear an interference pattern. This, essentially, is binaural beating.
Scientific explanation of binaural beats:
The human auditory system analyses time differences between tonal vibrations in sections – called critical bands. When two different sinusoidal (sounds like this) tones that lie within one critical band are heard simultaneously, through separate ears, there will be a time-dependant phase (difference in similar rhythms) between both ears. At certain low to mid frequencies, the phase creates an auditory event, which is basically an aural illusion, of another tone or beating.
What is Brainwave Entrainment
Firstly, what are brainwaves? Brainwaves, are electrical brain wave patterns, happening several times per second. Functionally, their role is still not fully understood in neuroscience and is still being researched.
Neural oscillations correlate well with our activity levels (meaning that they are a result of being in these states – an important distinction to keep in mind), and can be grouped simply in the following sections:
- Delta (up to 4 hz): Sleeping, some attention tasks.
- Theta (4-7 hz): Drowsiness, inaction, inhibition in response to stimuli.
- Alpha (8-13 hz): Inhibition, relaxation.
- Beta (14-30 hz): Alertness, normal concentration.
- Gamma (31-100+ hz): More extreme forms of sensory stimulation.
Secondly, what is entrainment? The simplest example of entrainment that one usually hears is of Dutch polymath Christiaan Huygens, who in 1665, noticed that when he placed two clocks beside each other on the wall they eventually matched each others’ frequency. Another example would be a mother and baby’s heart beats entraining with each other when they are close.
What is brainwave entrainment? The theory of B.E is that the auditory illusions can cause resonant entrainment with the brain. I.e – if you listen to a resonant illusion (binaural beat) with the same frequency of the desired brainwave then you can induce it in yourself or others.
The main problem with this is the presupposition that brainwaves work in the opposite way that they actually do. In other words; Certain brain states produce certain brain waves; brain waves don’t produce brain states. You just don’t turn a dial to 6.5 Hz and induce instant moods.
Why are binaural beats so popular?
Please don’t think we are knocking the use of binaural beats, they are a useful psychoacoustic tool which, in terms of audio therapy, there are many benefits. The answer to ‘do binaural beats work’ can’t be an explicit ‘NO’ – as many people have great and powerful experiences with them. The questionable area however, is the bold ‘scientific’ claims of why they work (here’s an example).
In other words, do binaural beats work? – Yes, but not due to brainwave entrainment.
Besides the placebo effect, and the power of expectation, binaural beat products often ship with pink noise. I.e, the binaural beats will be masked by rain, waterfalls, the sea, birdsong etc. Whilst the justification for this from the sellers may well be ‘for your comfort’, it’s ignoring the contributory factor of pink noise, a sound which has been proven to aid relaxation.
One can learn to influence their own brain waves through neurofeedback technologies such as electroencephalographs (EEGs). You can also do this with galvanic skin response devices (GSRs), and heart, pulse and breath rate monitors.
The factor often not considered when evaluating the effectiveness of binaural beats programmes is how internal self monitoring is activated in people who may not have done it before. In other words, the act of listening to something that professes to put you in a meditative state, sets up an expectation for you to be in one & therefore your self monitoring system is turned on. This in turn helps you relax yourself. It’s called mindfulness…
This is the beauty of listening to music or sound to aid relaxation, it’s a tool that can help you self monitor better, as you have a reference point – the music/sound – which has a relaxed feeling-tone to compare your current state to.
For example, if you are in a relaxed mood and listen to music that is super exciting (for you), there may be a disconnect and you may turn it off, or you may start to get excited – it’s ultimately your choice. In the same way, if you are excited/stressed etc, and you listen to music has a relaxed feel about it, it provides you with a reference point around which you can change and monitor your feelings, breath and general state of awareness.
Even when quantified brainwave entrainment actually works, the main problem with it is how it patronises the user. It gives them the easy option, and (supposedly) works by flicking a switch. Not only does this approach not promote self-knowledge and actualisation, but it does not have a long-term effect on the patterns of neural impulses.
After entrainment software/programs stop, our brainwaves return much quicker to their normal state than from genuine relaxation or meditation. Some evidence suggests that our brainwaves are evenly spaced on a logarithmic scale to actually prevent entrainment and cross talk. Your brain naturally prevents this kind of thing from happening.
There is also the view that brain waves are meant to be complex, and changeable. One study showed, by mathematical modelling, that the complexity of brainwaves is a good indicator of brain fitness. They showed that ‘virtual brains’ modelling diseased states showed lower complexity than those modelling healthy states. In other words, complexity is good, so long as you have mindfulness in there!
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