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Binaural Beats: Does This Auditory Illusion Really Calm Your Brain?

Indian woman on bus with headphones
Science is divided on whether binaural beats have any value, but many people swear by them. Kathrin Ziegler/Getty Images

If you're looking to achieve total relaxation, lower your stress, manage anxiety, enjoy better quality sleep or even ramp up your focus, it might be time to drop the beat — binaural beats, that is. These aren't the sort of sounds you're likely to hear in the club, though. In fact, when done right you won't hear any discernible beat at all.

"Binaural beats combine two slightly different sound frequencies to create the perception of a single frequency tone. When each ear is exposed to two different frequencies at the same time (one in each ear) the brain actually hears a single tone that is the difference between two separate frequencies, and your brain tunes into this new frequency," says Melissa Gentry, life coach and CEO of Healing the Love via email. "For example, if you listen to a 290-hertz tone in your right ear and 300-hertz in your left ear your brain will actually absorb a 10-hertz tone."

"That's a very low-frequency sound wave — one you can't actually hear," adds sleep specialist and clinical psychologist Dr. Michael Breus in an email. "But you don't need to hear the sound for your brain to be affected by it."

The idea is that the sound waves inspire neurons in the brain to begin firing at that same beat, helping people to achieve a specific goal. There are five categories of sound frequency patterns that allegedly do different things:

  • Delta pattern: Beat at a frequency of 0.5 to 4 hertz. This beat is intended to produce deep, dreamless sleep.
  • Theta pattern: The 4 to 7 hertz frequency associated with theta patterns are designed to help with the quality of meditation, REM sleep and creativity.
  • Alpha pattern: Believed to improve relaxation, this pattern is set at a frequency of 7 to 13 hertz.
  • Beta pattern: This pattern can actually increase alertness and improve concentration, but if done too intensely can cause anxiety. Beta pattern beats are done at 13 to 30 hertz.
  • Gamma pattern: Gamma pattern beats fall in a range of 30 to 50 hertz, and are associated with maintaining arousal during wakeful periods.

"Each of these frequencies has a different effect on our brain, therefore one should listen to the frequency range that corresponds to their desired result," says Gentry.

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Do Binaural Beats Work?

I gave binaural beats a try for a week in an attempt to calm my dreams, relax my teeth-grinding tendencies, improve sleep quality and provide a much-needed afternoon energy boost. I didn't notice any dramatic changes in the short term, but apparently that's not unusual.

"The theory is that it should happen immediately. But in reality I think the brain needs to get accustomed to it, so I think 1-3 days would be my personal recommendation," explains Breus. Since I tend to be pretty stubborn on all fronts, I plan to keep up the effort to see if my results show up over time.

Elizabeth Davidson, of Moline, Illinois, turns to binaural beats almost every day, and is just one among legions of people who swear by their effects. "Most of the time when I am at work, I use a concentration-focused binaural beat that really helps me focus more than any other tool," she emails, noting that she prefers to get her beats from the app Binaural Chakra Therapy.

Of course, this emerging field has yet to be conclusively proven one way or the other. Some studies claim that binaural beats are effective at anxiety reduction, which is certainly good news for people dealing with this mental illness. However, other therapy and/or treatment methods should not be discontinued. "In addition there is some evidence that they could change hormonal production," Breus notes.

A 2020 study published in the journal eNeuro found that binaural beats have no effect on mood or synchronizing brain waves and wondered if the positive outcomes reported in other studies was a placebo effect. "We did find, however, that binaural beats elicited differential patterns of connectivity, compared with the monaural beat control. Whether these connectivity patterns have a functional meaning (in terms of cognitive enhancement and mood modulation) remains an open question," the study authors noted. Still, experts remain excited at the prospect of brain-related areas where binaural beats could have an impact, such as a potential prevention or treatment measure for depression, migraines and other conditions.

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Trying Out Binaural Beats

Fortunately, there is little, if any, indication of negative impact of binaural beats, leaving the area open to continued study, tweaking and experimentation. You can experiment on your own using regular old headphones or earbuds. "In each ear, you receive sound at a slightly different frequency (often accompanied by some relaxing background sounds)," says Breus.

There are plenty of binaural beats available for free or purchase online, or you can even make your own using a beat generator. Whatever you do, make sure to keep total tones lower than 1,000 Hz. "Like anything in life, listen in moderation and do not overdo it," Gentry says. "Since it takes the brain approximately seven to 10 minutes to be in sync with the audio you want to give yourself a minimum of 15 to 30 minutes when listening to binaural beats to obtain the benefits."

So, don't try this when you're in a rush and expect results. "The idea behind binaural beats is that you are training your brain, so it requires repetition and continued practice to create changes in your brain," explains Gentry. "So, turn on some beats, tune in to the soundwaves of change and enjoy the journey."

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