But the question is: Does it have a special effect on the brain? A lot of people think so. The basic claim being made for binaural beats is "resonant entrainment". Entrainment, in physics, is when two systems which oscillate at different frequencies independently are brought together, they synchronize with one another, at whatever the combined system's resonant frequency is. Examples of entrainment occur in animals in nature; for example the chirping of crickets or the croaking of frogs. Synchronization of menstrual cycles in women is another example. Even people coming together and dancing with one another is a type of entrainment. The basic claim for binaural beats is that the perceived low-frequency beat will entrain your brain wave pattern, thus forcing your brain into some desired state.
Binaural beats change the frequency of your brainwaves, giving you control over which category you experience at any given moment. And because you’re in the driver’s seat — and producing specific frequencies to induce a specific state of mind — you can use binaural beats to boost performance, increase focus, get better sleep… the possibilities are endless. “There’s an infinite number of variations on how you could use this kind of technology,” says Bill Harris, Director of Centerpointe Research Institute and creator of auditory brainwave training program Holosync.
Theta: This brainwave pattern is associated with deep relaxation and with some stages of sleep, including the lighter stages of non-REM (NREM) sleep. REM sleep itself is mostly composed of beta wave and other activity that’s similar to an alert, waking brain. Deep meditation produces theta waves, which are slower and lower frequency (between 5-8 hertz) than Alpha waves. That murky barrier between sleep and wakefulness, when you’re drifting in and out of sleep, and your thoughts feel dreamlike and difficult to remember? That’s a theta-dominant state of consciousness.
Our brainwave states are natural. Guiding the brain into those states intentionally by using entrainment is just another way of experiencing those same natural states. Nothing “unnatural” is produced by the brain as a result of using entrainment. The only thing that is different is that when using entrainment we often go into the experience with either general expectations, or a well defined laundry list of specific expectations that we associate with entrainment. We have no such list going throughout our normal day when we’re not using entrainment.
So using the example track above, the right ear is sent a 20Hz beat, compared to a 10Hz beat in the left ear. As the right ear receives the higher frequency of beat, this works to increase the speed of the ‘left' brain hemisphere, which can be helpful for people with conditions like ADD, who are often found to have an abundance of slow wave activity in the left brain.
Alpha (12hz – 8hz) – Awake, but deeply relaxed. Simply closing your eyes will produce alpha brainwaves. This category is associated with daydreaming, visualization, imagination, light meditation. Brainwave expert Anna Wise called the alpha range the bridge between beta and theta. (More information can be found in Wise’ book The High-Performance Mind)
Participants in the included studies were children and adults, either healthy or with conditions such as learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, migraine, stress, anxiety and myofascial pain. Interventions included single, alternating, ascending or descending frequencies of photic or auditory stimulation or audiovisual entrainment selected either by the participant or by the investigator. Nearly half the studies used single sessions and the rest used multiple sessions ranging from nine to 100. Length of session varied from 0.5 seconds to 60 minutes. Frequency of session varied from twice daily to weekly. Outcomes reported in the review included cognition (including verbal skills, performance skills, attention, memory and overall intelligence/achievement), short- and long-term stress, pain, headache/migraine, mood, behavioural problems and premenstrual syndrome (PMS).
There is a lot to like about this technology as a potential treatment for sleep problems. It’s low impact and non-invasive, it doesn’t rely on chemical drugs, it’s inexpensive and for most people likely easy to adopt and maintain. In this way, it’s similar to the other behavioral therapies for sleep that I like so much, including meditation and relaxation techniques, and other mind-body therapies.
“Chronic stress,” however, is not so easily resolved. This type of stress is associated more commonly with negative health concerns. Chronic stress results when there are constant multiple stressors or major life stressors present (4). Money, work, and the economy were the most commonly reported factors contributing to chronic stress in the American Psychological Association’s (APA) 2011 Stress in America™ survey (3). Additional significant stressors include relationships, family responsibilities, family and personal health problems, job stability, and personal safety (3). Major events, such as the death of a loved one, divorce, and moving also can produce chronic stress.
“Stress” is a commonly used term, and it is often used with different meanings. The standard definition for stress that will be used in this article is the disruption of the body’s homeostasis or a state of disharmony in response to a real or perceived threat or challenge (8). The threatening or challenging situation is referred to as a “stressor.” When a person encounters a stressor, the body prepares to respond to the challenge or threat. The autonomic nervous and endocrine systems respond by producing the hormones epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. The result of this hormone production is a cascade of physiological reactions that make up the stress response. Epinephrine and norepinephrine are involved in the initial changes that take place to prepare the body to react and to prepare for a challenge. These responses include increases in heart and respiration rates, blood pressure, perspiration, and energy production (8). There also is a suppression of immune function, production of β-endorphin (the body’s natural pain killer), and increased acuity of the senses. These changes make up the fight-or-flight response, which prepares the body to cope with the stressor. If the stressor is perceived as negative or more as a threat than as a challenge, cortisol production is increased. Cortisol is involved in energy production but also suppresses immune function.
Therefore we are very receptive to new technology products that promise to improve our lives, or solve previously difficult problems, because of some new scientific or technological advance. This has created, in a sense, a marketplace of consumers that expect to be dazzled with technobabble they don’t understand, backed by assurances of legitimacy by the citing of research and association with professionals or professional institutions, and offering significant benefits. We are all, in a sense, waiting for that next product to improve our lives, and many of us like to feel we are on the cutting edge – getting an advantage over others by being savvy early adopters.
^ Bittman, B. B., Snyder, C., Bruhn, K. T., Liebfreid, F., Stevens, C. K., Westengard, J., and Umbach, P. O., Recreational music-making: An integrative group intervention for reducing burnout and improving mood states in first year associate degree nursing students: Insights and economic impact" International Journal of Nursing Education Scholarship, Vol. 1, Article 12, 2004.