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:
- “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)
- “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?)
- “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)