Binaural beats were discovered in 1839 by a German scientist named Heinrich Dove. Ever since, they have been touted as one of the most popular forms of brainwave entrainment, along with monaural beats and isochronic tones.
However, the some studies now show that the effects of binaural beats are actually passive relaxation effects and not true brainwave entrainment. We'll explore precisely what that means in the course of this article.
In light of this, if you are seeking authentic brainwave entrainment, I suggest you move on to isochronic tones which have demonstrated a proven entrainment effect. In any case, they are deemed more powerful by the research community overall.
The human brain goes through many frequency cycles every day, each having a different effect on your level of consciousness. It is scientifically proven that we can shape these frequencies through sound, visual and tactile cues. The broad term for this is brainwave entrainment and it is recognized to have physiological effects.
Binaural beats are claimed to be a form of brainwave entrainment; a technology that uses two separate sound cues in an attempt to entrain the brain.
For instance, the THETA brainwave frequency occurs during states of still alertness, and in light sleep and dreaming. It is marked by 3-6 cycles (Hz) per second. The human ear doesn't react to frequencies below 20 Hz - so binaural beats play two separate frequencies into each ear (eg, 130Hz in the left / 136Hz in the right).
What effect does this have? Science and opinion is split...
Proponents of binaural beats say the brain compensates for the difference in frequencies heard in the right and left ear, creating an internal frequency of 6 Hz, and thereby entraining a THETA operating state. It then produces a frequency following response, something that has been demonstrated in other brainwave entrainment technologies.
Because the effect is produced within the brain (not in the ears as with monaural beats) it is critical to wear headphones or earphones to ensure separate frequencies are played into each ear.
Opponents of binaural beats suggest the effect is not one of entrainment but simple relaxation. They argue that binaurals are very quiet, with a 2:1 modulation depth, compared to monaurals and isochronics which have a 100,000:1 depth ratio. This means binaurals are less likely to produce an entrainment effect. Instead, they have more of a Ganzfeld Effect; where the mind quietens due to monotonous sensory input.
In nature, a Ganzfeld effect can be experienced when sitting in a quiet field and looking up at the sky, listening to the wind in the trees. If you live in an urban area or can't get away from the hustle and bustle of city life, binaural beats may achieve a relaxing effect, though not in the way they are often touted (ie, brainwave frequency entrainment).
Irrespective of how the relaxation effect occurs, there is a general consensus on what types of effects you may feel while listening to binaurals. I have experienced various phenomena usually associated with mediation:
These effects are the result of listening to binaural beats as well as a conscious effort to meditate. With practice this helps prepare my mind for more lucid dreams.
In one blind study of binaural beats and their effect on meditation, scientists found that 7 Hz frequencies enhanced meditative focus, while 15 Hz harmed it. So there is something to be said for listening to binaurals vs nothing at all. Other studies have shown a hypnotic and relaxation effect while listening to binaural beats.
If you are considering using brainwave entrainment as a way to access altered states, you may wonder: which is better, binaural beats or isochronic tones?
Without doubt, isochronics in action are more powerful than binaural beats in action. Indeed, EEG studies have conclusively shown than even monaural beats produce a greater frequency following response in the contralateral hemisphere.
There are some studies in support of binaural beats, such as Le Scouarnec who suggested the effect of a reduction in anxiety with THETA binaurals. However, other studies suggest this is not the result of entrainment, and shouldn't be marketed as such. It is more likely a passive meditation response or placebo effect.
To experience authentic brainwave entrainment, I recommend skipping binaurals and using isochronic tones such as Meditation Power (full review here).