If I told you that an imperceptible stimulus could reduce anxiety, improve memory and attention, and help you sleep better, you’d probably be skeptical. But that’s exactly what binaural beats claim to do.
Binaural means “both ears,” and binaural beats are created by presenting slightly different frequencies to each ear. What results is a pulse in the brain that is the difference between the two frequencies. For example, hearing a frequency of 120 Hertz (Hz) in one ear and 132 in the other would produce a binaural beat of 12 Hz. Your conscious mind can’t detect the beat, but your brain perceives it.
I first learned of binaural beats through a reader’s comment on this blog; she suggested they could help with sleep. At the time, I was highly skeptical and dismissed it out of hand. Honestly, it sounded a bit wacky to me. But as I’ve done further reading and talked with others in the field, I’ve been impressed by the growing evidence of their effectiveness.
I recently spoke with Karen Newell, co-author of Living in a Mindful Universe with Dr. Eben Alexander, and co-creator of Sacred Acoustics, which produces binaural beats audio recordings. We explored the effects of binaural beats and how they affect the brain and behavior. Here are some of the potential applications.
Anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric conditions, and growing evidence suggests that binaural beats can significantly reduce anxiety. A recent meta-analysis found a medium-sized effect averaged across four studies.
Newell described similar findings in her own research. In one such study, researchers asked the patients in a psychiatric practice to listen to binaural beat recordings daily for at least 20 minutes. After two weeks, participants reported a 26 percent reduction in anxiety—quite a change for a relatively brief and simple intervention.
Newell and her team are also using binaural beats recordings in hospice centers to test whether they help with agitation, which is common near the end of life. “Hopefully, the recordings can contribute to a very peaceful passing,” said Newell.
Problems with sleep are extremely common, with insomnia affecting up to a third of all adults. As with anxiety, emerging research suggests that binaural beats can help with insomnia, and may help healthy sleepers fall asleep more quickly.
How could beats help? “We deliver 4 Hz,” said Newell, “because that’s the border between delta and theta—the border between asleep and awake.” This similarity to what the brain does ordinarily when we fall asleep may induce the brain to do just that—which is “very helpful in a society filled with insomniacs,” said Newell.
Memory and Attention
Binaural beats also appear to improve the related processes of memory and attention. The same meta-analysis that found significant effects on anxiety also reported medium-sized effects on different kinds of memory, both short- and long-term. Additionally, the studies included in the meta-analysis showed that binaural beats could improve attention among healthy adults.
Newell described effects of binaural beats that go beyond cognition and mood and may affect consciousness on a deeper level. They may be especially useful in facilitating meditative states—especially for those who have struggled with unassisted meditation, as Newell herself said she had. “It was binaural beats that really began the process of quieting the mind so that I could make some progress with meditation,” she said.
She also noted that experienced meditators could find the recordings useful. “Some regular meditators tell us the recordings enhance their experience and take them deeper than they’ve ever gone,” she said, “and get them to that place they’re so familiar with much more quickly.”
How could these simple beats enhance meditation practice? “We think it’s getting the attention of the brainstem and creating this monotonous sort of attention that brings attention away from the neocortex where all the thinking is going on,” Newell said. “So it really slows things down and quiets the thinking mind so you can get into this expanded state of awareness that’s associated with meditation.”
It’s worth noting that not everyone finds the beats helpful for their meditation practice. “Other meditators say the tones kind of get in the way of their process, and the tones aren’t really necessary,” said Newell. The only way to know is by giving it a try.
Finally, some binaural beats listeners have described profound effects beyond the mind and body. (See "How Is Consciousness Related to the Brain?") Some have described “a sense of intuition, or have had a lot of visual experiences in their mind’s eye,” Newell said. “Some people start to receive messages or connect with the souls of departed loved ones.”
I understand that that might sound farfetched, though I have to say I’ve had my own ecstatic experience while experimenting with binaural beats. I wasn’t expecting anything in particular, and yet on one of the first occasions I listened to the Om recording from Sacred Acoustics, I suddenly felt intense waves of energy moving through my body and into my hands, accompanied by a swell of nearly overwhelming emotion. So that was…interesting.
Newell has some suggestions for how these kinds of effects might emerge. She explained that binaural beats make the body profoundly relaxed, but leave our minds awake and alert—what’s known as a hypnogogic state (which naturally occurs between wakefulness and sleep).
“When your mind thinks your body is asleep, it seems to awaken senses beyond the five physical senses. So it really serves to sort of ‘thin the veil’ between the physical world and the non-physical world.”
Intrigued? Consider giving it a try and seeing what happens. The Om recording is available for free from Sacred Acoustics.
The full conversation with Karen Newell is available here.
Alexander, E., & Newell, K. (2019). Living in a mindful universe: A neurosurgeon's journey into the heart of consciousness. Emmaus, PA: Rodale.