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Binaural Beats: What are they and do they actually work?

Written by Dave Michaelson and updated on November 15, 2017
Binaural Beats

Binaural beats are an extremely unique and interesting concept that have become increasingly popular over the last decade. Despite first being utilized over 100 years ago [1], it is only now that modern technology has made them easily accessible for the vast majority of the population.

Implementing the many variations of these beats into our lives has been suggested to improve our mental state, increase sleep quality, facilitate meditation and creativity, reduce stress, enhance learning, and even improve cognitive function.

But with these lofty claims, you might be thinking that they sound a little too good to be true? And wondering whether they do really work?

What Are Binaural Beats?

Now, the concept behind binaural beats can be a little hard to understand at times, but bear with me for a second.

In short, a binaural beat is an imaginary tone created by the brain when it is exposed to different frequencies (one in each ear) simultaneously.

You see, the human auditory system is constantly analyzing the differences between tonal vibrations within the work around us. When two slightly different tones are heard at the same time through separate ears, there will be a very slight difference in rhythms between both ears. If this difference is small enough, the brain creates the aural illusion (an imaginary sound) of another tone beating.

And this aural illusion essentially describes the binaural beat.

How Do Binaural Beats Work?

The brain is an incredibly complex organism, in which it contains billions of different neuron across billions of different cells. Elaborating on this, the neurons within the brain play a key role in transferring information from one cell to another.

When these neurons ‘fire off’ (scientifically speaking, create an ‘action potential’) bits of information, they release a small amount of electrical signal. When measured, these electrical signals are represented as brainwaves, which are produced at various frequencies depending on the current situation.

With this in mind, typically the higher the brainwave frequency being recorded, the more alert we feel. On the opposite side of the spectrum, lower brainwave frequencies typically demonstrate associations with states of relaxation or sleep.

Interestingly, early research demonstrated that listing to certain tones (and therefore creating a specific binaural beat) can actually influence human brainwave frequency.

A simple example of this would be listening to a 400 Hz frequency in one ear, and a 410 Hz frequency in the other. This would induce a 10 Hz binaural beat. The brain will then resonate with this binaural beat, creating a brainwave frequency of 10 Hz.

Taking all this into consideration, it seems logical that we can therefore alter the frequency of our brainwaves using binaural beats, allowing us facilitate some sort of desired outcome (which is dependent of the frequency of the beat).

How Do I Use Binaural Beats?

With all this in mind, you might find yourself asking how it is best to implement binaural beats into your current lifestyle – and quite fortunately – it’s actually very simple. First, get a good quality set of over-the-ear headphones, we make some recommendations here

There are a number of companies that offer binaural sound tracks in accordance to set frequencies. There are a multitude of options, many of which are quite good. For a set of pre-packaged sets of tracks to help you achieve certain goals (sleep, lucid dreaming, etc.), Ennora is a good option. If you're looking for more of an iTunes-style offering where you can pick the individual tracks you want, The Unexplainable Store may be a better option. (Though as you see on this page, binaural beats are perfectly explainable.)

These same companies often produce apps that can easily be downloaded onto you mobile for easy access, making them incredibly easy to implement into your current lifestyle.

As an added bonus, there has been a growing body of evidence to suggest that certain frequencies actually show strong associations with different brainwaves. Using this information, we can then use this binaural beats research to guide our frequency selection in accordance to our set goal.

Delta Waves (01.-4 Hz)

Delta waves are the slowest frequency binaural beat that we can impart on the brain. These brainwaves are those that we experience during deep, and dreamless, sleep. As a result, delta waves are typically used to help individuals fall into a deep sleep [2].

In addition to this, having the brain enter this delta wave space has shown associations with an increased secretion of human growth hormone, serotonin, and DHEA, while resulting in a subsequent reduction in cortisol secretion.

This may have some potential to improve health and promote tissue healing, while also reducing inflammation within the body.

Theta Waves (4-8 Hz)

Theta brain waves are again quite slow. This state is often achieved naturally in the early stages of sleep, and is thought to result in increased creativity combined with a state of deep relaxation [3].

As such, many individuals implement the theta brainwave in conjunction with meditation to further improve their meditative state, increasing feelings of calmness and mental clarity.

These same individuals have been said to use the theta wave to improve creativity, which may have some capacity to improve artistic potential.

Alpha Waves (8-14 Hz)

Alpha waves are used to induce a state that we can describe as relaxed, but aware. Alpha waves are typically experienced during routine tasks such as gardening, taking a shower, or doing light housework, during which we are present, yet our winds also wander freely [4].

Alpha waves are thought to allow a state of relaxed focus, which may contribute to improve learning (which is a HUGE positive) in conjunction with a large reduction in stress. This is also thought to come with an increase in creativity in comparison to higher frequency brainwaves.

Beta Waves (14-30 Hz)

Beta wave is essentially the most common brainwave pattern. These brainwaves are produced when we are wide awake, alert, and actively engaged in an activity.

Beta Waves are essentially where we spend the bulk of our day.

Being in a beta wave is thought to improve our ability to focus on external stimuli, while also showing strong associations with analytical thinking and problem solving. This makes us better at handling realistic situations that require both logic and rational thinking [5].

Gamma Waves (30-100 Hz)

Gamma waves are currently thought to be the highest brainwave capable of being achieved by the brain, and as such have shown strong associations with increased mental activity, vastly increased abilities of perception, greatly improved problem solving skills, and greater memory recall [6].

This suggest that we may be able to use gamma waves to improve our productivity, particularly during logical tasks that require minimal creative thinking.

Interestingly, those individuals who spend more time in a gamma state have also been said to demonstrate more compassion than their counterparts, while also showing exceptional intellect and cognitive function.

Summary

Despite their recent entry into the mainstream, binaural beats have actually been researched in some capacity for the better part of a century. They appear to have potential as a way to induce a specific state of mind, which can have benefits depending on our specific goal.

Within this, they may have the ability to improve sleep, increase creativity, improve learning, and even increase productivity – all of which can be of great use to us at different times.

If you have had ANY experience with binaural beats we would love to hear about them, so post below in the comments and we will get back to you ASAP.

Frequently Asked Questions

Now, although we believe that binaural beats offer a host of positives (and honestly no real negatives), we have been getting a few questions around both their application and their safety.

 As a result, we have also put together this list of frequently asked questions we have been getting about binaural beats. I hope this helps!

  • Q: Are binaural beats safe during pregnancy?

    A: Now, while there is no evidence to suggest that binaural beats are dangerous for women during pregnancy, there is not actually enough evidence available to suggest that it is completely safe either.

    As a result, we would not recommend using binaural beats during pregnancy – purely because it is always better to be safe than to be sorry (particularly when it comes to children).

    I should also note that some people have gone as far as to suggest that the use of binaural beats during pregnancy may have the capacity to induce labour and lead to premature birth, although again, there is no evidence to suggest this is the case.

  • Q: Are binaural beats safe for babies?

    A: Similar to the pregnancy scenario, there is no research to suggest that binaural beats are harmful for babies or children, although in the same vein, there is also no evidence to support their use.

    In saying that, there has been a number of people within the area suggesting that the use of delta waves specifically (in both babies and young children) can promote an enhanced state of relaxation.

    This is further suggested to improve sleep quality and duration, which is obviously an excellent thing – particularly for those children with sleeping problems.

  • Q: Are binaural beats scientifically proven?

    A: Now, while our article on binaural beats does outline some of the research surrounding binaural beats, this may require further clarification.

    There has been a host of research around the use of binaural beats in humans, and the results have been extremely positive. In fact, this same research has demonstrated that binaural beats have the capacity to improve cognition, decrease stress, and improve relaxation and sleep, while also leading to improved creativity and cognitive function [1].
  • For those of you interested in looking at some of the research yourself, this scientific review summarizes a number of research papers within the area, and is well worth a read if you have the time.

  • Q: Can binaural beats get you high/make you trip/make you hallucinate?

    A: This is an interesting question that actually gets asked quite a lot by those individuals interested in herbal remedies and natural medicine.

    Binaural beats are known to improve relaxation and creativity, while also having the ability to put us into a state of pre-sleep. With this in mind, these feelings can aid in mediation and promote enhanced day dreaming.
  • So as a result, while binaural beats can’t actually cause us to hallucinate per se, they do allow our mind to wander and can change our mood significantly – something that many would describe as a natural high.

  • Q: Are binaural beats safe for you and your ears?

    A: In their simplest form, binaural beats are completely safe, but if applied through headphones they do open us up to some potential harm.

    Namely​ Noice Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL for short). 

    NIHL is exactly what it sounds like – hearing loss induced by loud or sudden bursts of noise. With this in mind, when using binaural beats in conjunction with headphones, they should be applied with lower volumes to reduce the risk of NIHL.

  • Q: Are binaural beats effective while sleeping?

    A: While there hasn’t been a heap of research on this topic specifically, there has been some evidence to suggest that listening to lower spectrum binaural beats (such as delta waves) during sleep may actually lead to improved sleep quality [2].

    This is may have the potential to improve recovery, while also increasing alertness during the day.

  • Q: How do binaural beats help you sleep?

    A: As touched on briefly above (and in our article on binaural beats), binaural beats have the potential to improve sleep quality AND help us fall asleep.

    You see, during states of relaxation and deep sleep our brainwave frequency typically drops below 4 Hz. This is a natural occurrence that lends itself to the sleep process.
  • By using binaural beats (with specific emphasis on delta waves and theta waves) that replicate these frequencies, we can slow down to the brainwave of the brain, replicating a sleep state. This can not only make it easier to fall asleep, but also improve our ability to remain asleep throughout the night.

  • Q: Do binaural beats help with lucid dreaming?

    A: Binaural beats are thought to have some capacity to promote and improve lucid dreaming. The theta wave (4-8 Hz) in particular has shown strong associations with creativity, relaxation, and light sleep (the same type of sleep where we experience our dreams).
  • As such, by listening to these specific beats as we fall asleep can keep the brain in this state and enhance our dreaming experience. This will also allow us to maintain awareness without drifting into a deeper sleep state – which is essential for lucid dreaming.

  • Q: Are binaural beats good for studying?

    A: In short, yes.

    Binaural beats that stimulate the alpha wave of the brain (8-14 Hz) have been shown to induce a state of relaxed focus, in which increased attentiveness is observed. This can lead to an improved ability to learn and retain new information.
  • As a result, binaural beats can actually help us study, and make the study we do more effective.

  • Q: Are binaural beats bad/evil/satanic/demonic/a sin against christianity?

    A: I have to admit that I'm shocked how often this question comes up. First off, this is really a question for your pastor. However, I'll say that binaural beats is just science. You play one tone in one ear, another tone in the other ear, and it helps your brain relax.

    I can't think of other scenarios in which playing a specific frequency of sounds in your headphones counts as a sin, but I'm not a theologian. 

  • Q: Which binaural beats are best for anxiety?

    A: There has been an abundance of research looking into the impact of binaural beats on mood, with quite a bit of research focusing specifically on anxiety. With this in mind, using binaural beats that stimulate theta waves within the brain have been shown to improve mood and reduce stress.
  • As a result, the use of this same beat has also shown to greatly improve symptoms of anxiety in susceptible individuals [3].

  • Q: Can binaural beats help healing?

    A: This is another interesting aspect of binaural beats that (I believe) requires much more attention.  Binaural beats have the capacity to reduce stress while also improve mood and sleep quality. In doing so, it has the ability to put the body in a better state to heal damaged tissues.
  • As such, although the beats themselves can’t actually promote tissue healing, they can help put the body in a state where it is better equipped to undertake healing processes. This may lead to enhanced healing times and a better rate of healing.

  • Q: Can binaural beats make you smarter?

    A: As touched on in depth in binaural beats article, gamma waves have shown strong associations with increased mental activity, vastly increased abilities of perception, greatly improved problem solving skills, and greater memory recall [4].

    Taking this into consideration, binaural beats may improve our ability to use the knowledge we have in certain environments, whether it be to solve problems or take an exam.
  • In saying that, they will only help us use existing knowledge and cannot give us new knowledge – so maybe they don’t make us smarter, just better at using our knowledge.

  • Q: Can binaural beats change your body?

    A: The answer to this is somewhat interesting. While binaural beats can’t change our body specifically, inducing brainwaves that are of a higher frequencies (using gamma waves and beta waves) may increase the ‘activity’ of the body at a cellular level.
  • This may increase our metabolic rate, slightly increasing energy expenditure which – over time – may lead to additional weight loss. That's pretty theoretical though, so this is obviously an area where we'd need a lot more research to say for sure.

  • Q: Can binaural beats change your eye color?

    A: Our eye color is essentially the result of our unique makeup – a key part of our individual genetic code.
  •  Unfortunately, this means that without the use of surgery or external contacts, we can’t change their color. While binaural beats are an amazing thing, they don’t have the capacity to change our genes (which is unfortunate but true).

  • Q: Can binaural beats increase testosterone?

    A: While there is no evidence to suggest that binaural beats can increase testosterone secretion, there has been identified associations between increased sleep quality and increased testosterone production [5].
  • As such, by using delta waves to improve sleep quality we MAY see a subsequent increase in testosterone secretion, which can have a host of positive effects for both our health and our body composition.

  • Q: Can binaural beats increase estrogen?

    A: Extremely similar to testosterone, there is no evidence to suggest that binaural beats have the capacity to increase estrogen levels BUT by improving sleep quality we MAY see an increase in estrogen production.

  • Q: Can binaural beats open chakras?

    A: The concept of ‘Chakras’ is one that is somewhat shunned by the scientific community. As a result, there is no research to suggest that binaural beats have the capacity to open chakras (or that chakras even exist for that matter…).
  • But, despite this, there are a number of spiritually minded individuals who believe binaural beats can facilitate the opening of specific chakras, which can enhance mediation and spirituality.

  • Q: Can binaural beats change your gender?

    A: No, of course not, why would you ask that? Changing gender is very much limited to surgery.

  • Q: Can binaural beats make you taller?

    A: Again, unfortunately, no. This is science, not magic, folks.
  • Similar to eye color (and gender), height is very much dictated by our DNA – something that we don’t really have the ability to change.

  • Q: Can binaural beats cause headaches?

    A: There is a little evidence to suggest that listening to higher frequency binaural beats (those that stimulate gamma and beta waves) may lead to a headache after prolonged use.
  • As such, we recommend that you use these recordings intermittently, with breaks every 40 minutes of listening. Additionally, we also recommend you keep the volume relatively low to avoid any noise related headaches occurring.

References:

About the author

    Dave Michaelson

    If he could describe himself with one word alone, Dave Michaelson’s would be “committed.” He leaves it up to the observer whether that is an adjective or a verb. What he is unwavering on is his belief that health begins at the home and in the heart. His articles reflect that, whether they are about food, do-it-yourself, or mindfulness and meditation.

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