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Do binaural beats work?

Updated: Jan 26

-In Tune Series Part 7-


Demystifying controversial beliefs within the field of sound healing and modern-day spirituality.


Applying specific brainwave frequencies in order to induce a desired state of consciousness, does that work? I’ll take you down into a deeper understanding of this sound healing technique.

It’s one of the most popular (online) sound healing methods. Binaural beats are based on hard science, yet fail to be fully recognised by science. It turns out that it doesn’t seem to work as the theory is promising, and yet the results seem to be generally positive. There are different sound healing agents at work and I will explain here which are these highly-overseen healing factors.


Scientific sound healing


Is sound healing unscientific? Some would argue so, but here is a major exception: binaural beats. The scientific community is generally somewhat suspicious or sceptic towards sound healing. On one hand that is because sound healing is dealing with more subtle internal and energetic layers, difficult to measure or study. On the other hand there has been very little research on the effect of sound on human beings so far. Binaural beats are an exception to that. This is the one branch of sound healing that has been studied more broadly. Why is that? And what are these studies showing? Are binaural beats really working? What are they in the first place?


What are binaural beats?


When we play a specific, pure frequency (let’s say 150 Hz) and simultaneously we play another frequency that is close to the first frequency (let’s say 200 Hz), something special happens. We are perceiving a tone that is actually not there. In case of the given example it would be a 50 Hz tone. In music theory this subjective psychoacoustic phenomenon is called ‘combination tone’ or ‘difference tone’. This tone is exactly the difference between these 2 frequencies. Although it’s mostly very subtle and only really audible when the volume and pitch are high enough, they are really there, at least subjectively. They cannot be measured or technologically observed, as they only exist from our subjective perspective.


If these 2 frequencies differ only very slightly, one doesn’t perceive a different lower tone, but a ‘beating’. Also the frequency of this beating is exactly the difference between these 2 tones. If 2 people sing very loud, exactly the same pitch, and one of these people would suddenly slightly raise her voice (let’s say 4 Hz higher), a beating occurs. We could say these people are singing out of pitch now, that is also clearly marked by a subtle but audible beat. This beating would be 4 cycles per second in the given example, as this is the difference in pitch between the 2 voices.


Now here come in the binaural beats. 2 pure tones with a small desired difference in pitch are generated electronically. 1 tone goes in the left ear, the other in the right one. When listened to it with headphones (only!) the desired effect is created: a binaural beat appears. If 440 Hz is played in the left ear and 444 Hz in the right, what is subjectively perceived is a beat in 4 Hz. Theoretically this should induce a theta brainwave frequency, thus creating a meditative mindset and relaxed feeling.


The cousins of binaural beats


At least equally effective are monaural beats or isochronic tones. With these 2 sound phenomena the beats aren't created within your neural pathways, but are prepared as beats in the acoustic sound range (outside of your brain). Therefore you can listen them through speakers.


Monaural beats = the combination of two marginally different frequencies that create a perceived third tone, which are together put out as a cohesive sound.

Isochronic tone = a tone that’s being turned on and off in a rapid, rhythmic manner. (*1)


Different scientific studies show that monaural beats and isochronic tones seem to be at least as effective! The idea that the binaural beats are ignited within the brain simply speaks to the intellectual audience.


Brainwave frequencies


For understanding the aim of binaural beats, let’s discuss the science on which this sound practice is based. Measuring human frequencies seems to be a hard nut to crack for the scientific community. Although it is assumed that the ground of existence is vibration, measuring the exact vibration of something – let’s say a human being – is a complex matter. The very little information about ‘our frequency’ that is generally accepted by the scientific community is on brainwave frequencies. The brain consists of neurons that transmit information to one another through electrical signals. These signals produce rhythms or wave patterns, which are known as brain waves, measured with an EEG (electroencephalography). (*2)


There are 5 main types of brainwaves categorised:

  • Delta waves (below 3 Hz): deep sleep or extremely still mind in advanced meditation

  • Theta waves (from 3 to 8 Hz): deep relaxation, focussed inward, dreams at night, visualisation, meditation

  • Alpha waves (from 8 to 12 Hz): relaxation, creativity, passive attention, daydreaming

  • Beta waves (from 12 to 38 Hz): activity, busyness, external attention, faster mental processes, anxiety, stress-related

  • Gamma waves (from 38 to 80 Hz): heightened focus, concentration, heightened ability to learn and process at a fast speed, brilliant creative performances, bliss, excitement, visualisation and meditation

(I’m copy-pasting this part from my previous article ‘Should we raise our frequency?’)


During the daytime we are generally producing lots of beta waves. Most people in the western world today are generating phases of beta waves that are long and fast, which are causing stress, anxiety and the like. Generally most of us could do with some more alpha and theta waves in order to feel more relaxed and balanced.


Until the invention of the digital EEG only the first 4 categories were known to science, as the analogue EEG could only measure up until 25 Hz. (*3) With the digital EEG interestingly the gamma waves are added to the list. The research on gamma waves gives a new perspective, and is showing that heightened brainwave frequencies are enabling us to perform brilliant creative and learning processes. Also in meditation these higher gamma frequencies are often running through our brain. Higher emotional states as bliss or happiness are often experienced while generating these very fast brainwaves.


As modern-day people are spending prolonged periods of generating beta waves, generally we would benefit from generating more often either the lower (delta-alpha-theta) or the higher (gamma) brainwaves.


Entraining the brain


The theory behind binaural beats is based on entrainment between the acoustic sound frequencies and the electric brainwave frequencies. What is entrainment? It’s a fascinating phenomenon we find in many aspects of life. As all apparently independent vibrational organisms are interfering with other apparently independent vibrational organisms, it is unavoidable to constantly be in a process of tuning. When one comes into contact with an external, strong (dominant) frequency, one naturally aligns his own resonant frequency with that dominant frequency.


If that sounds theoretical, let’s look at some examples. Everyone knows that many women living together in one house, may start to align their moon cycle naturally. That is happening through entrainment. Another example: a group of people is working together. Suddenly another person with a very strong presence or energy enters that group. The entire dynamics of that group is likely to change. If the group happens to stick together, the group members may align their selves mainly to this new ‘charismatic’ person. Yet another examples that involves acoustic sound: when a group of people is chanting OM and suddenly a person within that group with a strong voice slightly drops the tone, within a short time all group members will (often unnoticed) tune their voices to this lower tone.


The idea behind binaural beats is based on entrainment. By being exposed to a specific low frequency (through binaural beats) for a longer period of time it is assumed that the electric brainwave frequencies will come into entrainment, and thus into resonance, with the induced acoustic sound frequencies (of the binaural beats).


Does it actually work?


Through applying specific binaural beats one can theoretically entrain brainwaves and thus induce a desired state of consciousness. At least… that’s the theory! Now does it really work? Well… that is arguable.


Many people claim to experience a decrease in anxiety and stress and an increase in the ability to focus, after listening regularly to binaural beats. Some scientific studies are also confirming that, although scientific results are very mixed. If we want to know whether or not binaural beats are effective we should look more closely at the effectiveness of the brainwave entrainment hypothesis. If 7 Hz is playing through my brain, do my brainwaves really start to vibrate at the theta level?!


Results of several studies answer with ‘yes’ and ‘no’. There has been numerous scientific researches since 2007, on small and big scale, on the effect of the brainwave entrainment hypothesis. Whether or not it really works as the theory is promising, the studies show to be inconclusive. A synthesis of the 14 conducted studies so-far (*4) revealed contradictory results, with five studies reporting results in line with the brainwave entrainment hypothesis. Eight studies reported no effects in terms of entrainment, and one study reported mixed results. For entrainment with beta waves all results were even negative.


So if you put up your headphones and play 7 Hz binaural beats through it, you might or might not start to vibrate your brainwaves in theta… An unsatisfying answer indeed. Clearly, entrainment is a true phenomenon, at work in different levels of energy. Why then is it that entrainment doesn’t seem to happen between acoustic sound and electric brainwaves? Could it be because the nature of electric vibration doesn’t match the nature of acoustic vibration and thus preventing entrainment to occur? Or is there simply a need for a deeper scientific investigation to conclude that it actually is working? At this moment these questions stay unanswered.


Why listening to it might really benefit you!


Now I’ll speak just from my own experience and insights in healing sound. Although the brainwave entrainment theory so far doesn’t show clear results, still many people experience positive effects from listening to binaural beats. The most common benefits are reduced anxiety and stress, as well as improved focus and sleep.


I believe there are other, more important, factors involved to which we can credit these positive effects. These are in my experience some of the cornerstones of sound healing in general, that I will shortly outline here.


1) Low frequencies


In general most people benefit the most from listening to low frequencies. It doesn’t matter that much which frequency it is exactly (although it sounds fancy to come up with specific scientific frequency theories). As long as the vibration is low, it generally has a relaxing and balancing effect on the listener. Even the highest gamma waves (around 80 Hz) sound like low acoustic sounds in our ears (if you know that we human beings are able to hear up to 20.000 Hz). If translated to acoustic sound all of the brainwave frequencies are experienced as low frequencies. Thus for that reason binaural beats have the potential of relaxing and holistically benefiting the listener, no matter which frequency it is exactly. All binaural beat frequencies (in between 0,5 and 35 Hz) are low acoustic sounds and therefore have this potential.


2) Repetitive sound patterns


If 1 tone, 1 beat, or another sound pattern (let’s say a melody or a mantra) is repeated for a longer period of time, that creates holistically beneficial effects. The mind is naturally getting more focussed and the entire system thrives from being exposed to repetitiveness. It is simplicity that is experienced through this repeating pattern. Surely this is happening in binaural beats. The same beat continues for a longer time. No matter what is the frequency of this beat, the effect will be beneficial because it is listened to for a longer period of time.


3) Drones and soundscapes


Most of the tracks that include binaural beats have actually much more going on than just the binaural beats. Honestly, if I personally listen to the ‘pure’, dry binaural beat itself, I get cranky within a couple of seconds. Luckily these beats are usually integrated in a larger soundscape. This soundscape may have properties that are as (or maybe even more) beneficial than the pattern of binaural beats itself. A soundscape contains long stretched drones. These are deep tones that are stretched-out sometimes even throughout the entire song. They might also form melodies with other long-stretched tones. Although the play of intervals and melodies might work on a deep level, generally, the songs that contain only 1 drone (instead of several of them, forming melodies) may trigger, in my experience, the most profound effect.


4) Placebo


Possibly the most powerful healing agent is ‘belief’ itself. Generally highly underestimated is the power of our own mind. Although the term ‘placebo’ is often regarded as an illusionary phantom, it should be recognised that a healing often fails or succeeds depending on one’s own belief in it. If one beliefs in the power of sound and puts as well faith in the scientific world, listening to binaural beats might just benefit you for that reason only. As outlined above of course there are several different aspects into play!


5) Retreating from the external world


The cocoon-experience is created through the act of closing oneself off from the external stimulants. The sound itself is also a stimulant of course, but it’s only one, and it’s one that you experience consciously and relaxed. The fact that you put on your headphones and withdraw your attention from the outer, opening up for the inner world, is healing by itself.


Conclusion


At this moment there is nothing whatsoever that points at the effectiveness of the brainwave entrainment theory on which the practice of binaural beats is built. Yet, listening to binaural beats in many cases shows to be generally beneficial. This might be credited to other factors than the brainwave entrainment theory. An important factor is that binaural beats are mostly integrated within a soundscape with long-stretched drones. It’s not just the repetitive beats, but the entire ‘song’ that offers different triggers for holistic healing. Another important factor is the placebo effect that is created through the strong collective faith that’s put into science. Backing-up a sound healing method with recognised scientific knowledge makes the method much more appealing and trustworthy to many people.


My personal suggestion would be the following. If you are attracted to binaural beats, then listen to them within the framework of a well-created soundscape. In other words; instead of playing the isolated 'pure' binaural beats, play a sound healing 'song' that suits you in which binaural (or monaural) beats are integrated. In this way you allow different healing factors to be at play in a balanced way.


Two examples (with a steady drone and nice sound effects) you can hear underneath. Put on your headphones and enjoy your flight!







Sources



Images from Hal Gatewood, Bret Kavanaugh and Ilse Raps


About the In Tune Series


This series contains articles and occasionally videos on vague, mystic and often controversial topics within the field of sound healing and modern-day spirituality. I’ll shine some light on some very ‘settled’ beliefs within this field, and investigate whether or not they really are ‘in tune’ with ‘truth’

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