In recent years, they've earned a reputation as a simple and effective life hack for better sleep, improved focus, greater productivity and more.
Here is everything you need to know about how binaural beats work and if they are indeed what they're hyped up to be.
What are binaural beats?
Before understanding how binaural beats work, or if they work at all, we need to unpack what they actually are. As the name suggests, a binaural beat is the combination of two distinct sounds that creates one indistinguishable beat. These two slightly different frequencies are played in tandem to create an effect in the brain called brainwave entrainment. Also known as brainwave synchronization or neural entrainment, this effect occurs when the brain synchronizes brainwave frequencies with an external stimulus. Proponents of binaural beats claim that this effect can be used to create neural firing patterns that correspond with various states of consciousness that are beneficial for everything from sleep to studying (more on this later).
The science is complicated yet the idea is really quite simple and possibly even brilliant, although the jury is still out on that last part. For now, despite the fact that a number of studies have been done on the subject, there is no hard scientific proof of the efficacy (or lack thereof) of binaural beats. However, there is plenty of strong anecdotal evidence that they do help people. Even if this does turn out to be largely a placebo effect, it might be one that works for you.
How binaural beats work
As mentioned above, a binaural beat is the combination of two distinct yet similar sounds played simultaneously to create an auditory illusion that tricks the brain into only hearing a single, lower frequency beat. One sound is played into the right ear and the other the left, meaning headphones are required for this trick to work. When done correctly, the brain naturally perceives the difference between the two sounds rather than their sum or individual characters. For example, if a sound with a frequency of 200 Hz is played in one ear and another of 210 Hz is played in the other, the brain will focus in on the 10 Hz difference between them and hear only a single low-frequency beat. This is well understood and widely accepted by the scientific community.
The main point that is still up for debate is not even whether binaural beats do in fact lead to brain entrainment. The most comprehensive study done on the subject so far proves that they do alter brain frequencies as advertised. However, as the authors point out, it remains to be seen whether this entrainment actually leads to improved cognitive performance or changes to mood and sleep patterns. Luckily, there don’t seem to be any dangerous side effects to using binaural beats and all it takes to find some is a single YouTube search, meaning the best way to know for sure whether binaural beats are for you is simply to try them out for yourself. But, before you do, it’s worth understanding the different types of binaural beats and what benefits they may be able to provide you with.
Types of binaural beats
There are five categories of brainwave frequency patterns that we use to describe the varying levels of consciousness and activity in human brains, namely delta, theta, alpha, beta and gamma. When we do things such as sleeping, relaxing and meditating our brains are in the lower frequency states of delta and theta. Alpha is a transitional state that bridges the gap between these lower frequencies and the higher ones of beta and gamma, which are associated with alertness and high-level cognition. There are thus five kinds of binaural beats, with each one corresponding to one of the above mentioned states.
- Delta: The delta states frequency range is 0.5-4 Hz. It is generally associated with deep, dreamless sleep and the unconscious mind. It is claimed that binaural beats with this pattern can induce deep sleep, help to heal the body and may even lower cortisol levels, reducing stress and providing anti-ageing benefits.
- Theta: The frequency range for the theta state is 4-8 Hz. Meditation, creative thought and REM sleep all happen when the brain is in this state. If you’re looking for a boost in these areas, this is the beat pattern for you.
- Alpha: The alpha state takes place in the range of 8-12 Hz. The lower end of this range is associated with relaxation and calmness, while the upper end is best for focusing on tasks such as writing, studying and other similar activities.
- Beta: The beta state ranges from frequencies of 12-35 Hz. Beats in this pattern can increase alertness and concentration, but can also lead to anxiety at the upper end of the spectrum.
- Gamma: At a range of 35-50 Hz, this state is associated with arousal and alertness. Beats with this pattern should help to maintain these states, but be wary of jumping in at this frequency after sleep or meditation as this could also lead to anxiousness or other unpleasant feelings.
There are, of course, no hard boundaries between each of these states. The above information should thus be used more as a reference point than a rulebook. Ultimately, as already mentioned, all of these binaural beats are safe and listening to them shouldn’t cause anything more than mildly unpleasant side-effects at worst. At best, you may have just stumbled on to a life-hack of epic proportions. Talking of which…
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