Unpopular opinion: Beyoncé didn’t make the beat sicker.
It was Gerald Oster who sneezed on the beat when he co-opted H.W. Dove’s neuro-auditory revelations into his experimentation with binaural beats: an auditory illusion perceived when two different pure-tone sine wave frequencies are presented to a listener dichotically (each to an ear). Otherwise known as “entrainment” for the beats’ ability to entrain brain waves to a desired frequency.
Or at least that was the intention of binaural beats.
At the moment it’s tough to gauge the true neurological value of binaural beats as the practice doesn’t seem to fit a “one-size-fits-all” paradigm. Yet, you know what might help the experience, regardless of binaural beats’ efficacy? Nootropics.
What is Binaural about the Beat?
List the benefits of music on the mind and nobody panics.
Add the word binaural to the claim and EVERYONE LOSES THEIR MINDS.
And for good reason: Binaural beats are actively intended to manipulate human consciousness via audio signals. It’s like Soviet psychotronic mind control, except much more subtle & sinister:
e.g. Could you imagine if the government started playing these tones through the radio??
Fortunately, that’s not how binaural beats work: Playing them through external speakers would meld the tonal frequencies into a standard mononaural beat, a single frequency. Instead, binaural beats operate by delivering two minutely different pure-tone frequencies, one in each ear via headphones, producing an acoustic perception best represented by this graph:
To “correct” the tonal mismatch, the brain shifts its internal frequencies, implementing a change in brain wave functionality that trickles down to the physiological experience. The right beat produces the right cognition, influencing the right physical outcome.
Or at least that’s the theory behind binaural beat technology.
It may also be complete mumbo-jumbo, a sexy snake oil tactic with zero credibility. Although the practice does deserve credibility given the sizable lump of research that speaks positively of the practice. I’d even venture that nootropics may bolster the experience (granted, nootropics are intended to bolster every experience), but for the most part you may just have to try it yourself to find out.
Binaural Beat Sample
Taken from Auditory Neuroscience, this binaural beat plays 500 Hz pure tone in the left ear & 500.25 Hz pure tone in the right ear. The mismatch causes the left & right ear to go in & out of phase every 4 seconds. (Headphones required.)
The Discovery of Hemispheric Synchronization (i.e. Binaural Beats)
While the concept of binaural beats appears technologically new, bordering on sci-fi, the technique was discovered in 1839 by Prussian physicist & meteorologist Heinrich Wilhelm Dove, who observed shifts in perception due to slightly different sound frequencies playing separately to each ear at once.
However, given the rarity of pure tones in nature and the 19th century’s inability to sustainably manufacture & control two different pure-tone sound frequencies at a time, therapeutic interest in binaural beats was held off on development until 1973–a time ripe for neuro-auditory research thanks to electronic oscillations, electroencephalograms (EEGs), & headphones.
Initiated by American biophysicist Gerald Oster binaural beat testing was performed via EEG at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. In his write-up “Auditory Beats in the Brain” Oster explained the value of “stereophonic earphones” in eliminating confounding auditory factors (e.g. skull-bone conduction) for binaury beats to occur “within the brain.” He noted this phenomenon as an illusion, yet an illusion unlike that of other sounds:
Listening to binaural beats produces the illusion that the sounds are located somewhere within the head. This in itself is hardly extraordinary: when music is played through stereophonic earphones, the orchestra seems to be somewhere in the head rather than ‘out there.’ It is intriguing, however, that when the beats are very infrequent, fewer than about three per second, they seem to move back and forth in the head. If the intensities of the two tones are different, the motion takes an elliptical path.”
Soon after, a research team comprised of Thomas Campbell, Dennis Mennerich, & Robert Monroe further explored the effect of binaural beats “within the head,” namely in the alteration of consciousness. The finding that binaural beats may reliably induce identifiable brain wave patterns influenced Robert Monroe to open the Monroe Institute in 1974, where Monroe developed his patented Hemi-Sync® (or Hemispheric Synchronization)–a method of altering brain waves using sound waves.
The idea being that synchronizing the brain’s hemispheres via binaural beats may ameliorate physical & mental difficulties affected by brain wave status.
Binaural Beats & Brain Waves
There are five specific brainwave states of interest, each believed to associate & interact with specific psychosomatic conditions. Theoretically, brainwave frequencies may alter to correct the audio mismatch of a binaural beat. The correction being a form of entrainment: the synchronization of organisms to an external rhythm.
Based on this model, different beats produce different modes of entrainment, or different states of synchronization. The shift in synchronicity leading to altered brainwave status. In certain cases, brainwave entrainment is viewed as therapeutic, a valid nootropic strategy. But that may depend on the specific brain waves targeted by the chosen binaural beat.
In order of highest-to-lowest Hz frequencies, the various brainwave states are:
Gamma Brainwaves, 38-40 Hz
The fastest brainwaves are also the most subtle for their rapid, automatic processing of multi-sourced* information (*multiple sources of the brain). Initially dismissed as “white noise,” the gamma brainwaves are believed to be involved in creating the unity of conscious perception–however, this notion is only theoretical as the mechanism of gamma waves, which possess a higher frequency than neuronal firing (i.e. synapses), remain largely a mystery.
Beta Brainwaves, 12-38 Hz
This is our average waking mental state, the frequency that consumes most of our daily time. Beta brainwaves are associated with “fast” thinking & activity, heightened when we are alert, attentive, and/or engaged in demanding tasks. Due to the wide spectrum, beta brainwaves have 3 sub-spectrums:
- Lo-Beta (12-15 Hz) – period of idle reflection & thought.
- Beta (15-22 Hz) – period of active engagement or problem solving.
- Hi-Beta (22-38 Hz) – period of complex thought, new experiences, high anxiety.
Alpha Brainwaves, 8-12 Hz
I view this as the artist’s brainwave state for its association with creativity & free-flowing thoughts. Alpha brainwaves correlate with the resting state of the brain, dominant during stages of meditation & low activity. Yet, it’s a non-sedative state of mind, keeping focus & attention intact, allowing mental processes to calmly skate from idea to idea, creating or learning new ideas through associations & combinations, uninhibited by lethargy & distractions.
Theta Brainwaves, 3-8 Hz
Theta brainwaves are common to sleep, but are also dominant in states of deep meditation. During these slower frequencies, the mind withdraws from the external world, focusing its senses inward, delivering images & information that underlie our waking consciousness. Theta experiences are fleeting, typically occurring right before sleep or right after waking, when our minds mesh reality with dream.
The alpha vs. theta differentiation for the literary savants: James Joyce’s Ulysses corresponds to alpha brainwaves much in the way that Finnegan’s Wake artistically amalgamates theta thinking.
Delta Brainwaves, 0.5-3 Hz
Low frequency brainwaves associated with deep sleep & deep, deep meditation. Delta states engage an even stronger detachment from external reality, stimulating states of empathy, healing, & regeneration. This should help illustrate the importance of sleep & meditation to a healthy mind & body.
The Purported Benefits of Binaural Beats
Here comes the moment of truth: Do binaural beats enhance cognition?
Some will answer adamantly YES to this. Others fervently NO.
What do I think? I think both groups are subjectively right & objectively wrong.
According to the research, binaural beats are “not suited for a one-size-fits-all approach,” and that personal cognitive controls need to be taken into account when observing cognitive entrainment. In essence, the value of binaural beats may vary from user to user based on various unknown factors, and thus we cannot draw any universal conclusions on the practice for the time being.
Having said that, there are studies that suggest of positive cognitive outcomes to listening to binaural beats. Whether or not these benefits are unique to each sample group remains to be seen, but at the least we can say that binaural beats have worked for some. And they seemed to have worked by:
- Improving diverging thinking. Participants with lower striatal dopamine levels demonstrated enhanced divergent creativity. (study)
- Affecting psychomotor performance & mood. Beta-frequency beats were associated improved visual task performance & reduced negative mood. (study)
- Reducing mild anxiety. Significantly poor study design, yet positive results warranted further study into delta/theta-frequency beats on anxiety. (study)
- Increasing verbal memory capacity. Frequency of 5 Hz over a long time was observed generating a coupling of brain activity that increases immediate verbal memory capacity. (study)
On the flipside, there are studies that indicate no improvement on cognitive (or physiologic) measures: e.g. no effect on vigilance with or without regards to personality traits (study), no effect on blood pressure or heart rate (study).
Until we learn more, take this research with a grain of salt (or don’t take it at all).
Nootropics that Sneeze on the Beat
Discussions on whether (& which) nootropics can amplify the benefits of binaural beats have occurred (e.g. “Binaural beats + nootropics?“), yet to no unanimously agreed upon decision. This is likely due to: A) the equivocal nature of binaural beats, and B) the lack of qualified research on the subject of stacking nootropics with binaural beats.
Even so, I’ve listed only a few nootropics that may support the cause of binaural beats (if we’re narrowing that cause to focus, concentration, & mood). My criteria being nootropics that: Alter brainwave status and/or enhance focus, concentration, or mood.
If you have alternative suggestions, feel free to comment them below.
But for now here are mine:
There are very few substances that can significantly alter brainwave status, and L-Theanine is one of them. Sourced from Camellia sinensis, the herb required for green, black, white, etc. tea, L-Theanine is an amino acid demonstrated to promote alpha brainwaves for creative states of relaxed, free-flowing mental activity.
In its natural state (in tea) L-Theanine accompanies natural levels of caffeine. For nootropic supplementation it isn’t a bad idea to stack L-Theanine with supplementary caffeine (or at least a cup of coffee), given L-Theanine’s ability to nullify the jitters of caffeine while maintaining the focus benefits of the drug compound. However, keep the caffeine levels on the lighter side to avoid its potentially distracting brainwave effects (as demonstrated by rat research). More on L-Theanine.
While the general consensus of the online nootropic community has moved away from racetams, I’d suggest giving one of them a try for the sake of bolstering binaural beats: Aniracetam. Others may help, particularly if they have worked for you before–however, aniracetam deserves special mention for its association with anti-anxiety mood boosts. Not that decreasing anxiety is essential to everyone’s focus & concentration (not everyone is anxious), but I find anxiety to be a common complaint among both nootropic users & binaural beat listeners. Aniracetam may help with the anxiety issue while also enhancing memory & learning. More on Racetams.
The Racetam + Choline Stack
Citicoline could easily qualify on this list as a standalone nootropic as I find it helpful for most, if not all, demanding cognitive tasks. Yet, I’m allocating it to this sidebar for its synergy potential with racetams. If aniracetam supports neurotransmitter acetylcholine production, citicoline helps to provide the precursor choline. Alpha-GPC also works as a choline source, but I prefer citicoline for its secondary promotion of uridine, another significant cognitive enhancer. More on Citicoline?
Oat straw, as in the straw of the oat and not the oat itself, is believed to enhance alpha brainwaves much in the same way as L-Theanine, one study suggesting that 2,500 mg of oat straw extract enhances concentration, bordering even on a theta brainwave state in certain cases. Take note that while this research is promising, demonstrating a potential link of effect between oatstraw & binaural beats, most of oatstraw’s brain benefits were short term & only observed on older users. Because of this I doubt mixing oatstraw extract with binaural beats will have any long-term significant effect for younger (<40 years) users. More on Oatstraw.
This might be entirely personal, given my proclivity for Rhodiola, but I’ve found the anti-fatigue, anti-stress benefits of this adaptogenic herb to mesh well with binaural beats. And initially I was going to keep this combo to myself until I read of other users praising this practice.
Due to the belief that certain binaural beats are able to modulate stress hormone cortisol output, Rhodiola’s anti-stress cortisol control makes sense here. At the least, the duo may help alleviate feelings of poorbeing, if not cognitive disruption altogether. More on Rhodiola.
L-Tyrosine (or better yet: N-Acetyl-L-Tyrosine) earns a spot on this list for similar reasons to Rhodiola: L-Tyrosine helps combat stress through supporting production of neurotransmitters related to mood, focus, & memory. Environmental stressors such as sleep deprivation, intense exercise, & water temples increase energy demands on the brain, forcing the organ to burn through reserves of natural tyrosine levels. Supplementing the amino acid may help, covering the brain chemical angle on stress & focus, while binaural beats address the brain wave angle. More on L-Tyrosine.
My Experience with Binaural Beats
There’s an unsettling base of pseudoscientific mystics that permeate the online binaural beat communities, that are holding the practice back (e.g. avoid 6.66 Hz, the mark of the audio-synchronic beast!!). Because while I don’t view binaural beats as miraculous portals into my spiritual mind energy, I have experienced elevated work performance while listening to beats.
But only while listening to beats: The focus, if I’m to believe I truly achieved elevated focus, only lasted as long as the music played. Some users describe hours of focus & brain balance following the beat experience.
Not in my case.
Yet, I’ve also experienced negative outcomes on cognition, which corroborates with the belief that engaging certain frequencies at certain times may induce a variety of effects. This notion, by the way, applies to many nootropics as well, leading me to believe that binaural beats do affect cognition. It’s just our understanding of binaural beats that is off & incomplete.
Do I believe that binaural beats enhance my cognition? Hard to say.
It could just be that the noise eliminates mental distractions, helping me to focus on the tasks at hand–in effect creating the illusion of an enhanced cognition. I’ll need to try this with non-binaural sounds & tones to know for sure if it’s a binaural beat → brainwave frequency thing.
I find there are plenty of non-binaural songs that keep me clued in on my work–be it writing, studying, exercising, etc. So I’m not entirely throwing out the alternative hypothesis: That it’s simply the “white noise” element of binaural beats overriding the otherwise distracting environmental tones.
Regardess, let’s be frank: Deadmau5 is still the best study music.
Try Binaural Beats for Yourself
My experience is only my experience. So as a sign off, here are a few binaural beats, each designated to a specific frequency, for you to experience your own binaural experience.
It may require a bit of trial-&-error to reach a frequency that works for you. More enthusiastic binaural beat listeners use generator sites that allow frequency adjustments. This may help to pinpoint the precise beat for your needs, but this isn’t a bad place to start.
(As far as the nootropics go, they earn my recommendation with or without binaural beats.)
Binaural Beats for Gamma Waves
1 hr of Gamma Binaural Beats: (40 Hz) Beat Frequency, (210 Hz) Base Frequency
Binaural Beats for Beta Waves
1 hr of Beta Binaural Beats: (20 Hz) Beat Frequency, (190 Hz) Base Frequency
Binaural Beats for Alpha Waves
1 hr of Alpha Binaural Beats: (12 Hz) Beat Frequency, (180 Hz) Base Frequency
Binaural Beats for Theta Waves
1 hr of Theta Binaural Beats: (7 Hz) Beat Frequency, (100 Hz) Base Frequency
Binaural Beats for Delta Waves
1 hr of Delta Binaural Beats: (0.9 Hz) Beat Frequency, (94.5 Hz) Base Frequency
For more on the subject of nootropics that support beatific brainpower, check out my Best Nootropic Supplements to Buy in 2017 list. And be sure to comment any thoughts, questions, personal anecdotes, haikus, snafus, etc. down below!