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What's the deal with binaural beats?

Creating a binaural beat with an audio editor. (WBEZ)
Creating a binaural beat with an audio editor.

If you’ve ever looked for some soothing sounds to help you relax, you may have come across something called binaural beats. If you search online, you’ll find hundreds of websites touting CD’s, mp3’s, and smartphone apps that make all sorts of health claims. Some are advertized as relaxation tools, but others claim to help you quit smoking or to mimic the effects of specific drugs. We here at Clever Apes wanted to dig a little deeper into binaural beats and see what’s going on.

So first of all, what are binaural beats?

Basically, a binaural beat is an auditory illusion created when two slightly different tones are played in each ear. The “beat” you hear—it’s more of a pulsation, really—is occurring in your brain.  There is nothing controversial about this phenomenon.  It is a consequence of the way our brains process sound, something we learned about in the last Clever Apes episode on binaural recording.

Take a listen below to get an idea. Make sure to use headphones.

Hopefully, you were able to hear the slow pulsing of the binaural beat in the audio above.  Now, what's controversial is the idea that listening to these beats might have some therapeutic or medicinal effect on the brain. The basic claim is that listening to a binaural beat of a certain frequency can cause one’s brainwaves to move towards that frequency. This is called brainwave entrainment. So, if you’re having trouble sleeping, you could just listen to a delta wave binaural beat and you’ll be on your way to dream land. If you want to feel alert, listen to a beta wave binaural beat. Want to meditate, turn on a theta wave binaural beat, and so forth.

There have been several studies on binaural beats over the years, examining their effect on everything from one’s mood to blood pressure to treating tinnitus, all with varying results. What's missing in all these research papers is any scientific proof of the basic principle: that listening to a binaural beat will actually cause a change in one’s brainwaves and brain state. One small study that tried to show this using EEG readings was unable to find proof that the beats changed brainwaves.

It may be true that listening to a binaural beat track could make you feel more relaxed, for example, but it has not been proven to be any more effective then just listening to whale songs or crashing waves.  Personally, I will admit to feeling a strange sensation when listening to some of these beats, but I’d be very skeptical about the scientific claims made by anyone selling binaural beat products. The science just isn’t there.

Have you had any experience with binaural beats?  Let us know in the comments section.

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