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    Brain Waves Goodbye

    When you are relaxed, your brain produces “Alpha” brain waves — electrical signals that pulse at roughly 8-12 cycles per second. When you’re more alert, your brain spits out Beta waves (13-40 cycles per second)… Dreaming? Theta at 4-7. Deep, dreamless sleep – 1-4 cycles.

    Okay, now follow the math on this one:

    If I play a tone in your right ear at 110 cycles per second… and one at 120 in your left ear… you “hear” a pulsing sound at 10 cycles per second, the difference between 120 and 110. This is called a “binaural beat.”

    When your brain “creates” this missing tone, the binaural beat, guess what else happens? Your brain starts resonating with that tone at 10 cycles per second… which is the relaxed Alpha frequency… and you get relaxed. Automatically.

    Make a binaural beat that’s at 6 cycles per second… instant Theta! At 2 cycles… sleep-like Delta without the bed hair.

    Sounds great, right?

    Too bad it seems to be another theory that SOUNDS good, but isn’t. (Just because something makes sense, doesn’t mean it’s true! Just because it “feels right” doesn’t mean… well, anything).

    I’ve been wondering about binaurals for a long time. I’ve listened to tapes of binaural beats from a number of publishers. In fact, I’ve spent quite a bit of cash on them. Some of my best friends make products based on this theory.

    I usually like listening to binaural beat tapes… but never enough to slap on some headphones for the 30-120 minutes a day that the manufacturers say I should. I often, but not always, feel more relaxed when I listen to them. I like them as white noise when I’m on a plane.
    But something always troubled me about the advertisements for binaural beat products — they never showed real-time proof of the “your brain entrains to the frequency” claim. It would be easy, I thought, to show the read-out from an EEG (a device that measures these brain waves) so we could actually see someone’s brain on binaurals. Especially with the ease of doing video online, I figured people would be racing to use SCIENCE to prove the “entrainment” claim.

    Alas… nobody entered the brain wave race.

    And now, there may be an explanation for why:

    A recent study at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Oregon (near one of the largest sellers of binaural beat products), plugged people into binaural beats, measured their brainwaves, and concluded:

    1. “There were no significant differences between the experimental and control conditions in any of the EEG measures.” (that is, the brains didn’t beat to the music)
    2. “There was an increase of the Profile of Mood States depression subscale in the experimental condition relative to the control condition (p = 0.02)” (some of the people listening to the binaural beats got more depressed… maybe because these were people who had spent thousands on brain wave products and they just realized they had wasted their money?)
    3. “There was also a significant decrease in immediate verbal memory recall (p = 0.03) in the experimental condition compared to control condition.” (I can’t find the words to describe this effect… but that’s because I was just listening to some binaural beat tape.)

    Now, granted the experimenters think that more studies need to be done to examine #2 and #3, they’re pretty certain brain-made pulses do not make brain waves.

    For those who have spent cash on, and love the effects of, brain wave tapes, let me just give you a quick opportunity to exercise your rational thinking muscles:

    Make a list of the possible OTHER causes for the effects that you believed came from the expensive tapes you just bought, that you rearranged your schedule to listen to, and that you believed would work (or you wouldn’t have bought them).

    (Hint: I just gave you 3 other causes)

    14 Responses to “Brain Waves Goodbye”

    1. Aleks Rechtman Says:

      Well, they must be doing something if the people got depressed and entered an early stage of Alzheimer’s :)

      To be honest I used one (the C. one) and it made me anxious so I stopped. Isn’t it the case of ‘one-size fits all – not such a good idea’? We all have different brain chemistry – try giving a Bipolar patient any SSRI – it will make them shoot through the roof with mania! And a mildly depressed person might see the light at the end of the tunnel on the ol’ good vitamin P.

    2. sashen Says:

      The study didn’t have enough people in it to be conclusive about the negative effects, but it does raise a potentially interesting point:

      Many of the binaural beat sellers say that listening to them will bring up unconscious material that could be upsetting…

      Well, this study suggests that it might be the binaural beat tapes that are CAUSING the problem, not “revealing” an old one.

    3. Brian B. Says:

      Hey Sashen!

      I took your quantum wealth seminar a few years ago, and all I can say is: WOW!
      What a load of crap and waste of my time and money. Dropping imaginary objects from my downward turned palm did not translate into increasing my wealth one iota. And the excitement you attempted to generate by giving away counterfeit $1,000,000 bills only underscored the ridiculousness of your insubstantive, faux-buddhist, New-Age-smarmy sales pitch. Now the happy ending: I did, in fact, get rich – VERY rich – by copying your style and setting up my own seminar series for fleecing the pathetic, gullible readers of “The Secret” who expect to attain wealth through meditation and shoving crystal suppositories up their asses! I can justify my questionable ethics — as I’m sure you do, too — by convincing myself that I’m performing a public service; that is, once people realize that my Quantum Crap method is just that, they’ll get down to the real job of working, HARD, until it HURTS! Of applying so much effort that the physical tension causes aneurysms to burst in their brains and ulcers to proliferate in their guts, as God, in his wisdom, intended. Yes sir, the REAL path to peace and prosperity can only come from hard work, low self-esteem, and a tightly clenched anus! Just ask Dick Cheney! 😉

    4. Aleks Rechtman Says:

      I am yet to meet a person without a ‘pre-existing, upsetting, unconscious material’ :-)

      Apparently meditation is not without its negative side effects for some people too.

      I truly believe it is notoriously difficult to have any valid scientific research in this area, since nobody is a ‘blank page’ or ‘clean slate’ – so there are no perfect controls.

      I seem to remember some of the ‘wave pushers’ claim you can meditate as deep as a Buddhist monk without the years of monastery isolation at the click of your i-Pod. Too good? Too bad.

      The poster child of meditation is a girl on youtube called SF Jane, who my friend informed me, cured herself of schizophrenia. Some task, and I bet yea not possibly reproducible on a large scale, but we’ll never know.

    5. sashen Says:

      Hey Brian,

      Even though this comment is a bit off-topic, I’m happy to address in.

      You and I seemed to have “missed each other at the station,” since:

      a) Nowhere in Quantum Wealth do I suggest that anything in the course translates into increased wealth or any other specific result. In fact, one of the last pages in the manual for the class says, “The way to guarantee misery is to use any of the techniques from the class with the purpose of attaining a specific result.” And while I give this same message throughout the class as well, I didn’t make it clear enough, apparently.

      b) There can’t be a “counterfeit” million dollar bill, since there’s no such thing as a real one 😉

      c) The *exercise* we do with the million dollar bills is merely to *demonstrate* that “money” is any item that a community agrees to use to facilitate exchange… and that you can create a “community of 2” when someone agrees to take a million dollar bill in exchange for whatever they give you. Another way to describe that is: “money” is simply a shortcut to agreement and the exercise can give one the experience of that concept.

      d) If you got rich by setting up a seminar, you clearly didn’t copy my style since I haven’t attained anything resembling riches from a class that I teach rarely, and only when someone decides to host a class on my behalf (for local classes in Boulder, I only teach when I’ve had 15 or more people request a class). Also, I don’t charge a fixed price for the seminar — people decide how/if/what they want to pay (plus there are no back-end “advanced” classes, so QW is not a sales pitch for anything else). And I have never relied on the classes for my income.

      e) In fact, you and I agree completely! The best way to make something happen is to apply effort to that aim (even though that is no guarantee, obviously). The point of the class is to share some techniques that I’ve found to be helpful in rapidly reducing the stress and confusion we often have about our goals, and to more easily and quickly find action steps one could take, with much less anxiety and aneurysm-inducing anal contraction than we typically think are required (and I have no philosophical issue with capillary-busting effort, if that’s what one chooses to engage in.)

      f) I’ve worked “hard” and I’ve worked “less hard.” Neither is, inherently, better than the other. But I prefer the latter; that way has never resulted in my hair falling out, while the former has.

      g) Oh, we agree on another point, as well: If you read this blog, you’ll probably notice that I’m perhaps even more critical than you of The Secret and of anyone who believes that any specific outcome can be obtained through magical thinking and superstitious behavior.

      h) Finally, since I don’t think I have “the way”, nor do I believe QW is offering a “prescription for living,” nor do I think of myself as a model of anything (I don’t believe my own historical results could be reproduced by anyone, myself included), I definitely don’t think of my actions as a public service. I don’t have the idea that the public *needs* to be served.


    6. sashen Says:

      Hey Aleks,

      I made the same points about the problems with studying meditation to the head of the Naropa University Consciousness Lab. He agreed, but suggested that *some* researchers who recognize the dilemma were designing studies that could be better than some that have been, well, let’s just say: lacking a valid control group.

      For example, Jon Kabat-Zinn had a study where a group who applied for a meditation program were split in half (that is, people who applied were divided into 2 groups, not that each individual was drawn and halved). One half took the 8 week (I think) meditation course. The other was told they would have to start after the first class was done. The study reported that the meditation group ended up “happier” than the control.

      The biggest problem (other than knowing what “happier” meant) is that the non-meditating group was not a valid control group.

      The meditators changed their lives — up to 2 hours of meditation every day, a support group, a major change in their daily schedule, plus the anticipation that they would be helped — but the non-meditators made no changes. Plus the non-meditators had their hopes for help dashed (or, at least, postponed)

      What might have been better is to divide the controls into multiple groups… each group had to change their lives with a commensurate amount of effort and time put into another activity, e.g. watching comedy movies, getting massage, taking a nap, having sex, etc.

      Plus, the group was self-selecting… these people WANTED to learn meditation because they already believed it would help. Their results could have been placebo effects.

      I contend that it may be impossible to avoid the placebo effects because of the pre-existing beliefs most people have about it (good *or* bad).

      Speaking of pre-existing … people can only have that unconscious material if you believe that there is such a thing as “unconscious material.” I’m more than a bit iffy on that one.

    7. Kris Says:

      If you haven’t found a company that offers EEG images of brain activity of people using their binaural audio products, you haven’t looked far enough. This company has several EEG images on their web site:
      Their site has some good info about brain activity. There are a lot of scam artists in the self-help industry but there are also some reputable companies who post research on their web sites.

    8. Ann O'Johnson Says:

      Amazing that anyone could take your Quantum Wealth class and come out thinking what Brian did.

      Or not. I guess it’s kind of like the psych class that totally forgot what they wrote the day after 9/11, some to the degree that they denied their own handwriting.


      You were part of the inspiration for my Earth Day blog. It’s up already. Something about ant farms.

      Ann O’Johnson

    9. sashen Says:


      Interestingly, even that site doesn’t show real-time images or, better, movies. At some point almost anyone doing almost anything might have brainwave patterns that match what’s on their site.

      Further, without a control (e.g. people listening to the same CD without the binaural beat, or listening to a regular beat instead of binaural, or people just resting for the same amount of time, or watching TV, or…), the single-frame images don’t really say anything.

      Similarly, unless the effect is shown with many people (a decent, randomized sample size), it’s also not really meaningful.

      Finally, for now at least, the research they reference about the Frequency Following effect is misrepresented. The research says that certain areas in the brain resonated with the binaural beat. This is not the same as “binaural beats produce Alpha/Theta/Delta waves.”

    10. peter Says:

      I did the centerpointe binaural stuff for about a month. I liked it at times, at other times it made me stupid (even more than when I paid 150 or so for the cds). In the end, I realized that what my brain was beating to was the literature, which provided some really wonderful, trance-inducing metaphors, something vaguely like ‘your brain is working hard to deal with this minor disturbance of mismatched (my word) tones, and it develops its muscles as it does so, which is why you need more new recordings later on with different tones” (which will cost you..”). I love the idea of my brain developing muscles! And the tapes made me sleep every single time–a nice way to build muscles. They definitely did something, or I did something to myself every time I put those things on. But the idea that my brain was somehow growing in its capability to handle stresses, was the grail I was following—yet there is no evidence of it whatsoever, beyond a metaphor and a dream.

    11. Kris Says:

      Hi Steven,
      Have you seen the video online where Ken Wilber supposedly stops his brain activity? I’m not sure whether I believe it or not, even though he’s connected to a certain type of EEG machine in the video, but I’m interested to hear what you think of it. Though, even if he truly was able to halt all the electrical activity in his brain, I’m not sure that means anything either. Any thoughts?

    12. sashen Says:

      Hey, Kris,

      Yes, I’ve seen it… I think you’re use of “supposedly” is accurate.

      The machine he was using is called the Mind Mirror. It’s a highly inaccurate device (notice that in the video he doesn’t have a collection of 16+ electrodes glued to his noggin, like you would for an actual EEG).

      Given how much electrical activity our brain kicks out from regions just designed to keep us BREATHING, I find the idea that he, or anyone, could stop all electrical activity to be highly suspect.

      And, then it brings up the other point: Hypothetically, let’s say he CAN do this. So what? What does that mean for you or me or Hannah Montana? If there isn’t a reliable technology for teaching others to reproduce this effect, it’s just a neat example of an unusual person. It doesn’t mean that it’s better/worse or proves anything in particular. That is, it’s interesting (ish), but the meaning is up for serious debate.

    13. johnra Says:


      STUDY ON BINAURAL CD *also available in pfd format*

    14. sashen Says:

      These studies are a great lesson in, well, studies.

      For example, in the Study On Binaural CD, it says:

      2. Hypothesis
      The test participants would feel significantly more relaxed after listening to the verum CD than after listening to the placebo CD….The hypothesis is considered to be falsified.

      What’s interesting about that is how you need to get through a LOT of info before you read the results, and up until that point, the study is written in such a way that you think the hypothesis will be upheld.

      More, reading the study reveals how tricky it is to make a good protocol. For example, it says that people listening to a CD designed to produce delta EEG waves did, in fact, produce more delta waves. But this is a subtle thing: To really test that, you would need to have a CD that turned on delta, then turned it off, then on, then off… in some randomized pattern. And then you would have to see how accurately the EEG correlated with the delta intervals. That is, did the listener start producing delta waves IMMEDIATELY upon the CD producing 1hz binaural beats? And did they stop producing delta AS SOON AS the CD stopped the binaural beats? If not, how much leeway is okay? What if the listener is producing delta when the CD isn’t making delta-frequency beats?

      In other words, the study was skewed to test for the positive hypothesis about binaural beats making matching brain waves and this aspect wasn’t fully analyzed.





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