YouTube might not be the first place to go for therapy, healing, or substance abuse treatment, but there might be something there that may help with all of those things. Binaural beats are a perceptual phenomenon that occurs when one hears a tone with two slightly different frequencies in each ear.
For example, they might hear a tone in their left ear that has a frequency of 200 Hertz (Hz) and a tone in their right ear with a frequency of 210 Hz.1 The tones travel into the brain separately, where the two tones are perceived as a single beat whose frequency is the difference between the frequencies entering each of the ears (10Hz).1 The reason that binaural beats are a perceptual phenomenon is that the listener essentially hears something that is not there. What they are hearing is the sound that their brain perceives when it receives sounds of two different frequencies in each ear.
These sounds are thought to enhance cognitive functions, such as attention and memory. They have a wide array of benefits that can be used in therapeutic settings and to promote healing. Some companies even claim that the beats are like ‘digital drugs’ which enhance memory and creativity and help tackle migraines, insomnia, stress, and more.
Brain waves are pulses of electrical signals that form distinct patterns. The four main brainwave patterns are beta, alpha, theta, and delta, in order from the fastest frequency to slowest frequency. Brainwave speed is measured in Hertz (cycles per second). Each brainwave pattern is associated with certain states of consciousness, and each has various benefits. Our brainwaves change according to what we are doing, which impacts thoughts, feelings, and emotions. For the majority of the day, we are in the beta state, which is the natural state of waking consciousness. Binaural beats can propel us into various brainwave states and promote certain benefits.
When the brain is stimulated in a way that propels it into a certain brainwave state, a method called brainwave entrainment is utilized. Binaural beats are one way to stimulate the brain into a specific frequency to experience the benefits associated with different brainwave patterns.
Binaural beats occur when the listener hears two different tones frequencies in each ear. While the science on how that happens within the brain is not entirely clear, it is believed that when each ear picks up a slightly different frequency, the brain tries to process both frequencies, combining them and causing the listener to hear a beat or a pulse that is not there.
The brain then follows along at the new frequency (which is the difference between frequencies entering the right and left ear), which is known as the ‘Frequency Following Response’ (FFR).2 Hearing two different frequencies does something to the brain that can’t easily be defined by science.
How is it possible that the listener hears something that isn’t there? It’s like an optical illusion for the ears, and studies have shown that listening to binaural beats changes brain activity. A 2015 literature review found that for the brain to register the beats, the tones should be at frequencies lower than 1,000 (Hz).1
To listen to these sounds, one should listen to recordings through headphones so that each ear receives separate frequencies and there is no interference from outside noise. While one can listen to the beats through speakers, the full benefits will not be experienced, as the different frequencies aren’t isolated into each ear.
While the beats are safe to listen to, experts advise that one should not listen to them while doing something that requires their full attention, like driving.
Use a pair of good quality headphones to experience the full effects
Audio files can be found on YouTube or other free resources on the internet
There are also professional therapy options that use binaural beats, such as sound therapy or meditation
It is best to listen when alone in a quiet space with no distractions
It is advised that, after listening, the listener should take time to relax and "come to," as they may feel a little tired
To feel the benefits, binaural beats should be experienced for at least 20 minutes regularly
Binaural beats, interestingly enough, were not discovered using headphones. Instead, the phenomenon was uncovered in 1839 by a Prussian physicist and meteorologist named Heinrich Wilhelm Dove.2 Dove had conducted an experiment where he had a person stand in the middle of a room. On both sides of the room, he placed a tuning fork, each of which vibrated at a slightly different frequency. He connected a listening tube from the tuning forks to the person’s ears. He found that the person didn’t hear two different sounds, but rather, heard one single beat.2
Since the sound that was heard was not the sound made by the tuning forks, it was clear that the brain was hearing a sound that didn’t exist. Dove had made a significant discovery, but he wasn’t exactly sure how it worked, or for what purpose it could be used.
In 1973, a biophysicist named Doctor Gerald Oster published a paper called Auditory Beats in the Brain, where he looked into how binaural beats might be able to help with medical impairments or work as a diagnostic medical tool.2 He believed that the phenomenon could be useful in the research of our auditory systems and how we hear and perceive noise.
He found data that showed that using these sounds could predict Parkinson’s disease.2 He also related the beats to hormonal cycles in women, and wrote about how the beats might be able to help with anxiety, insomnia, pain issues, and memory problems.2 This is because these sounds invoke specific responses in the brain that are different than when listening to natural sounds, which have benefits that can help with healing.2
Frequency: 0.5 – 4 Hz
Properties & Benefits: deep sleep, pain relief, anti-aging, healing, boosting the immune system
Frequency: 4 – 7 Hz
Properties & Benefits: deeper meditation, better sleep in the rapid eye movement (REM) phase, enhanced creativity
Frequency: 7 – 13 Hz
Properties & Benefits: relaxation, stress relief, positive thinking, better learning, helps to conquer maladaptive thought patterns, conquers phobias and fears, helps in substance use disorder treatment
Frequency: 13 – 30
Properties & Benefits: associated with being active and busy, improved concentration, alertness, focused attention, high-level cognition, analytical thinking, problem-solving
Frequency: 30 – 50 Hz
Properties & Benefits: cognitive enhancement, analytical thinking, problem-solving skills, improved memory recall
Listening to binaural beats can have many benefits. While the science on many of the benefits is unclear, there is no harm to listening to these sounds. Benefits may include:
Better and deeper sleep
Help manage withdrawal symptoms
Help with concentration
Help with pain management
Help achieve an out-of-body experience
Help to quit smoking
Help achieve a deeper state of meditation
Improved mental functioning
Increase the ability to learn new things
Increased ability to recall memories
Help improve the effectiveness of hypnotherapy
Help achieve lucid dreams
The research surrounding binaural beats is somewhat unclear, but there have been numerous small studies and reviews conducted.
A study conducted in 2001 found that binaural beats helped people who had mild anxiety.3 A study conducted in 2005 with more than 100 participants who were going to go under general anesthesia for a procedure found that patients who listened to these beats before the procedure felt less anxious about it.1 These patients were exposed to the delta wave pattern and listened to the sounds for 30 minutes before the procedure.1 Researchers stated that people who experienced higher levels of anxiety could listen to the beats for up to an hour before undergoing a procedure.
A 2005 study conducted at the National College of Natural Medicine in Oregon found that patients listening to delta wave binaural beats every day for 60 days experienced a decrease in anxiety and an increase in their quality of life.1
A review of 22 studies that were conducted in 2019 found that prolonged binaural beat therapy led to a reduction in anxiety.1
Troy Smith, a professor of psychological science at the University of North Georgia who studies binaural beats used electroencephalography to measure neuroactivity. He found that participants who were monitored with electroencephalography (EEGs) showed changes in neuroactivity. But, he did not measure the effects of those changes.4
A 2017 study using EEG monitoring found that the beats did not affect brain activity or emotional stimulation.1
So while the research is split, if listening to these sounds gives benefits or helps the listener to feel better, there is no harm in using it. The beats can be listened to at home and independently, so they are a great free resource that is accessible for all people.
For centuries, many different cultures have used music, singing, drumming, chanting and sound therapy for healing, and mental and emotional wellbeing.2 Repetitive sounds have been used in different cultures for years to induce states of meditation and for healing.
Sound therapy is particularly helpful when paired with other forms of psychotherapy.2 To truly address emotional issues, mental disorders or substance use disorder; it is vital to address not only the physical aspects but also emotional and spiritual wellbeing. While working on healing, binaural beats can help to promote general well-being and healthy practices such as proper sleep and better focus and attention. Without addressing the whole person, body, mind, and spirit, it will be hard to heal fully.
Binaural beats can be used in meditation practices to help people to achieve deeper states of meditation and concentration. While not every state of brainwave patterns is appropriate for meditation, the theta pattern, in particular, helps with better meditation. Binaural beat music is created particularly to enhance meditation, as it propels the brain into a similar brainwave pattern as meditation. For those who might be new to meditation, listening to the beats while meditating can help focus and concentrate on meditation.
Binaural beats are being used successfully in the treatment of substance use disorders. Many of the benefits associated with the beats are useful in the treatment of sleep problems, stress, anxiety, mental functioning, emotional control, alertness, and concentration; all of which are frequently underlying conditions within substance use disorders. Individuals who are in treatment may struggle to sleep at first when they have recently stopped using substances. The beats can help to treat insomnia and help those in recovery to feel well-rested.
Meditation is another form of therapy used in the treatment of substance use disorder. Listening to binaural beats can help boost concentration and a deeper state of meditation, which can be beneficial to treatment.
The beats can also help to regulate emotions, stress levels, and anxiety; all things that might be out of sync during recovery, as the body becomes used to functioning without substances again.
Binaural beats might also help mitigate the uncomfortable process of withdrawal as they can distract the mind and promote a feeling of relaxation. Many experience mental fogginess during withdrawal, so the beats can be used to enhance mental functioning. Binaural beats, particularly in the theta wave range, instigates motivation and focus, which can help avoid relapse. Finding the motivation to change and undergo treatment can be difficult, and the beats can help to encourage that motivation.
A study published in 2018 looked into the effects of binaural beats on substance use treatment and relapse prevention. The researchers hypothesized that “the auditory system can be used as a sensory conduit to counteract the neuroplastic changes that underlie the cravings and associated maladaptive behaviors that cause recently-detoxified people to relapses.”5 The results showed that listening to binaural beats significantly reduced the chance of having a relapse during the 90-day period of the study. The researchers found that binaural beats can help to control cravings.5