Binaural beats are auditory brainstem responses which originate in the superior olivary nucleus of each hemisphere. They result from the interaction of two different auditory impulses, originating in opposite ears, below 1000 Hz and which differ in frequency between one and 30 Hz (Oster, 1973).For example, if a pure tone of 400 Hz is presented to the right ear and a pure tone of 410 Hz is presented simultaneously to the left ear, an amplitude modulated standing wave of 10 Hz, the difference between the two tones, is experienced as the two wave forms mesh in and out of phase within the superior olivary nuclei. This binaural beat is not heard in the ordinary sense of the word (the human range of hearing is from 20-20,000 Hz). It is perceived as an auditory beat and theoretically can be used to entrain specific neural rhythms through the frequency-following response (FFR)--the tendency for cortical potentials to entrain to or resonate at the frequency of an external stimulus. Thus, it is theoretically possible to utilize a specific binaural-beat frequency as a consciousness management technique to entrain a specific cortical rhythm.
Since opening their online store in 2011, Binaural Beats Meditation has served “hundreds of thousands” of customers, according to James Matthews, the site’s customer happiness manager. “We continue to see an increase in interest… from individuals, but increasingly so from therapists using the music to help clients, health and wellness organizations, and businesses around the world.”
That is generally where the science ends and the pseudoscience begins. A number of companies and individuals have then extrapolated from the phenomenon of entrainment to claim that altering the brain waves changes the actual functioning of the brain. There is no theoretical or empirical basis for this, however. Entrainment is a temporary effect on the synchronization of neuronal firing – it does not improve or increase brain functioning, it does not change the hardwiring, nor does it cure any neurological disorder. There is no compelling evidence for any effect beyond the period of entrainment itself.
Entrainment is a term originally derived from complex systems theory, and denotes the way that two or more independent, autonomous oscillators with differing rhythms or frequencies, when situated in a context and at a proximity where they can interact for long enough, influence each other mutually, to a degree dependent on coupling force, such that they adjust until both oscillate with the same frequency. Examples include the mechanical entrainment or cyclic synchronization of two electric clothes dryers placed in close proximity, and the biological entrainment evident in the synchronized illumination of fireflies.
The functional role of neural oscillations is still not fully understood; however they have been shown to correlate with emotional responses, motor control, and a number of cognitive functions including information transfer, perception, and memory. Specifically, neural oscillations, in particular theta activity, are extensively linked to memory function, and coupling between theta and gamma activity is considered to be vital for memory functions, including episodic memory.