Binaural beats are a popular way to meditate, but how effective is it really at improving your quality of life and overall health?
When you’re trying to clear away all of the thoughts from your head before going to sleep at night, does music help? According to study after study, yes — just listening to relaxing music has been shown to improve sleep quality. But if you’ve ever tried to fall asleep while listening to soothing background noise, whether through earplugs or white noise generators, then you know how hard it can actually be to get comfortable enough to drift off.
One possible solution could come from research about our brains’ response to certain types of frequencies. In particular, we respond positively to both high frequency noises (such as 5 kHz) and deep bass sounds. A recent breakthrough in auditory perception may have found ways to combine these two attributes together, creating something called “binaural beats”. These beats consist of low frequency noises paired with higher pitched ones. When played back over stereo speakers, they seem to cause us to feel drowsy. And now, thanks to technological advances, you can try making your own pair of headphones using this technique.
In order to understand what binaural beats are, first let’s talk briefly about how our brains process different kinds of sounds. Humans hear sound through tiny particles known as vibrations traveling through air molecules around us. The human eardrum picks up each vibration and sends it along its corresponding nerve cell, which transmits information about it to the part of the brain responsible for hearing. This area translates the data into electrical signals that represent the pitch, volume and location of the original sound source. From here, the sound gets processed further within the inner ears, where specialized cells pick up on minute variations in pressure caused by external objects touching our heads. They send their findings to another set of nerves running down between the cochlea and the place where neurons connect directly to the hypothalamus region of the brain. Here, the incoming messages are translated again into electric impulses representing the loudness and tone of the original sound.
So far, so good, but scientists soon discovered that adding more layers to the equation would make things much better. If they added a third layer, combining the message sent to the cochlear nerves with the one coming straight from the inner ears, they got close to replicating exactly what happens inside the brain itself. So instead of simply telling the brain how fast the sound was moving, why not also tell it how long ago it occurred, too? That means sending three separate pieces of information rather than only one. With binaural beats, researchers were able to put together a series of tones that act like little hammers hitting various parts of the ear simultaneously. Although still being debated, many believe that this method works because it causes small changes in blood flow within the temporal lobe regions of the brain, which regulate emotions [Source: NPR].
Now that we’ve taken care of science, let’s explore how binaural beats might benefit you next time you find yourself struggling to calm your racing thoughts. Read on!
The Science Behind Brain Wave Entrainment
If you’ve read How Sound Can Help You Sleep Better, you probably already know that sound affects our bodies. We secrete hormones when exposed to different stimuli, such as music, laughter and speech. Even though most of us don’t pay attention to this fact very often, scientists have begun looking closely at the effects of sound on our mental health. One researcher studying this phenomenon is Dr. Endre Begley who believes he stumbled upon a potential cure for depression during his studies of tinnitus, a chronic ringing in the ears associated with stress, anxiety and depression. He noticed that patients suffering from mild forms of depression reported feeling less anxious once the ringing stopped. He theorizes that since depression results from constant bad moods, the same thing happens when we stop paying attention to the annoying sound.
Another example of sound affecting psychological well-being comes from a group of Israeli women who experienced postpartum depression following childbirth. Their doctors hypothesized that the depressed feelings came from reduced levels of oxytocin, a hormone released during labor that plays an important role in bonding mothers to babies. To increase production of oxytocin, the staff gave the women specially designed relaxation CDs featuring special breathing techniques. After 12 weeks, the women showed significant improvements in their overall well-being. Oxytocin isn’t the only chemical affected by sound either. Some evidence suggests that exposure to musical therapy helps stimulate chemicals involved in memory formation, including dopamine [Source: BBC News Magazine].
Scientists aren’t sure yet how exactly binaural beats manage to affect our minds, although theories abound. Some think that since the pitches vary slightly, the brain must adjust itself to synchronize with whatever pattern is currently playing. Others believe that the beat stimulates areas of the brainstem that influence consciousness, while others speculate that the combination of multiple frequencies confuses the brain and forces it to focus solely on the lower portions of the spectrum. Whatever the exact mechanism behind the brain wave entrainment created by binaural beats, it seems likely that they produce positive physiological reactions in humans the same way that repetitive light patterns induce sleepiness in hamsters. Since our brains are wired similarly, it follows that binaural beats should have similar effects on us.
But does this mean that any noisy environment counts as effective binaural beats stimulation? Or does it matter where you wear the headphones? On the next page, we’ll look at how binaural beats differ from traditional meditation methods.
Binaural Beats Meditation Technology
Before we delve into the topic of specific binaural beats meditation programs, let me explain a few basics about how these beats are supposed to work. First off, unlike monophonic sound sources (like mp3 players), binaural beats require a pair of headphones. If you want to experience true entrainment, you need to sit upright comfortably without leaning forward, otherwise the left side of your face will block the lower tones. Second, most programs available online use beats that repeat every 1/2 or 2/3 of a second. Thirdly, you want to keep the beats consistent throughout the duration of the session. Fourth, you shouldn’t expect immediate effects. Most people report taking anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours to notice noticeable differences in their state of mind. Finally, no scientific evidence exists proving that binaural beats alone are capable of inducing trance states or altering states of awareness.
While skeptics point these facts out, proponents say that binaural beats provide a safe alternative to drug usage. Unlike drugs such as Adderall, binaural beats won’t alter your judgment or cause dependence problems. There’s no reason to fear binaural beats, especially considering the benefits they offer. For starters, they allow you to eliminate distractions and concentrate on getting relaxed quickly. More importantly, however, they tend to be gentler and more accessible than standard meditation practices. Many users find that they wake up refreshed and ready to tackle their days, whereas a common complaint among beginners is that regular sessions leave them tired and groggy.
Many experts agree that binaural beats are helpful for relieving symptoms related to motion sickness, jet lag, eye strain and pain management. However, binaural beats haven’t been proven to treat conditions such as ADD and ADHD, nor are they recommended for pregnant women or anyone else whose lives depend on maintaining full alertness.
On the last page, we looked at the possibility of using binaural beats for personal self-improvement purposes. Keep reading to see if it improves your chances!
Is It Worth Trying out Your Own Binaural Beats Meditations?
If you’re interested in learning more about the science behind binaural beats, you can download free MP3 recordings from Web sites dedicated entirely to exploring the subject.
Try downloading the program Relax Melodies by Michael Stern, who offers explanations about how binaural beats work. Another site worth checking out is www.BrainTune.com, which provides downloads of beats specifically made for improving concentration and sleeping habits. Before purchasing anything, remember that you should consult your doctor regarding the safety of binaural beats.
There are also products available that claim to enhance performance at school. For instance, students may want to test out the product Mindset Pro, which features 24 unique tracks meant to boost creativity, memorization skills, critical thinking ability and problem solving abilities. The company claims that the best track for boosting productivity is titled Focus Booster. Other options include Relaxing Music, Active Concentration Training, Visual Stimulation Therapy and Cognitive Processing Therapy. All of these programs cost $19.95-$29.95 per track set.
Whether you decide to give your own creation a shot, purchase a pre-made recording or visit a practitioner, the bottom line is that binaural beats are becoming increasingly popular as a tool for achieving peace of mind. Whether used to destress ourselves before bedtime, prepare us