In this article I cover the topic of auditory beat stimulation through Binaural Beats and its effects on sleep, overall physical and mental well-being, and altered states of consciousness.
Auditory Beat Stimulation (ABS) has long been considered a way through which various parameters of human consciousness can be manipulated. ABS consists of auditory stimulation through simple audio tones, to which the test subject simply has to listen.
Over the years, hundreds of studies have been completed, aimed at verifying one or another alleged/real effect of ABS. These studies have often yielded contradictory data however. That said, it still makes sense to consider ABS as something that can yield potentially life-changing results in a non-invasive manner, on several physical and mental ailments. It can also be a valuable aid in achieving altered states of consciousness.
What is ABS thought to perhaps positively impact?
- Cognitive processes (such as learning)
- Mood states
- Relaxation (by countering anxiety)
- The ability to focus (attention)
- Creativity (divergent thinking)
- Physical performance in top-level athletes
- Physical pain (Hemispheric brain synchronization achieved through binaural beat stimulation, has been used to partially replace fentanyl in surgeries).
- Dreams, lucid dreaming etc
- Heightened cognitive states such as meditation and OBE (Out of Body Experiences)
- Traumatic brain injuries
The above considered, it is clear that ABS in general and Binaural Beats in particular, are certainly worthy of exploring in detail. That is exactly what we are going to attempt in this article.
Monaural and Binaural Beats in ABS
The first step is to understand how Auditory Beat Stimulation works. Learning exactly what binaural beats are, cannot hurt either.
In addition to the mentioned benefits of ABS on various mental and physical aspects of human existence, it has also been studied in conjunction with ASSR (Auditory Steady-state Response) and audio location.
Most of the studies about ABS have involved monaural and binaural beats. Binaural beats are the results of an auditory illusion produced by the brain. When two tones of slightly differing frequencies are applied to the two ears of a person, instead of the two tones, he/she will hear the frequency-difference between the two.
For example: we apply a 230 Hz tone to the left ear and a 235 Hz tone to the right one. The test subject will hear a 5 Hz (235-230=5) binaural beat. This beat is thought to be capable of achieving a number of responses in the human brain. It can allegedly elicit a Frequency Following Response (FFR) and it can even synchronize the waves of the two hemispheres of the brain. Binaural beats deliver most of their presumed positive effects through these two pathways.
In the above example, we are looking at a 5 Hz binaural beat, delivered through a 230 Hz carrier frequency.
What about monaural beats? Monaural beats consist of a single composite tone applied to both ears of the test subject (or to just one ear – their effects should be the same).
The two frequencies are mixed beforehand, resulting in a 5 Hz amplitude-modulated (AM) signal, which is then applied to the test subject’s ear(s). This way, the test subject never hears the carrier frequency, just the resulting monaural beats.
What are the practical differences between binaural and monaural beats?
- Monaural beats are physical in nature: they do in fact objectively exist. Binaural beats on the other hand are an illusion generated by the brain.
- Binaural beats are essentially presented as two neighboring frequencies, one for each ear. Monaural beats are presented as a single composite signal.
- Monaural beats are perceived peripherally. Binaural beats on the other hand are perceived/generated centrally.
- The composite signal that makes up monaural beats is decoded in the cochlea. Binaural signals originate in the superior olivary nuclei.
- Either one or both ears are needed for the perception of monaural beats. For binaural beats, both ears are absolutely required.
- An interesting twist is that binaural beats only come about at frequencies lower than 1,000 Hz. Monaural beats on the other hand seem to work fine with higher carrier frequencies too.
Science knows quite a bit about ABS in general. In fact, we possess a thorough understanding of exactly how auditory beats are processed on a neurophysiologic level. For the scope of this article however, it does not make much sense to go into too many details on that.
The Auditory Steady-State Response
What’s much more interesting for what we are discussing here is the existence of the Auditory Steady-State Response and its actual responses to monaural and binaural beats.
Defined as an auditory evoked potential, triggered by acoustic stimuli which are repetitive and persistent, the ASSR may be the key to brainwave synchronization and to the Frequency Following Response phenomenon. This is in turn the key to the effects binaural beats apparently have on memory, learning, concentration, sleep etc.
Let us take a look at how it all ties together.
Its mechanism of action and triggering extremely intricate, the ASSR is apparently the driver of EEG’s background activity. Several studies aimed at the ASSR have established that its amplitude is attention modulated, within the confines of certain modulation frequencies.
More importantly however, beat stimulation has been used to determine the source of ASSR. Findings in this regard have often been contradictory.
What is clear is that the ASSR’s of monaural and binaural beats are prone to synchronization. A number of studies have already confirmed theories aimed at monaural and binaural beats and phase synchronization. In fact, it has also been determined that beat stimulation can in fact alter EEG power, as well as synchronization.
Despite the apparently logical way the different theories seem to click together, it is currently not known exactly how binaural beats act upon modulation of mood, pain, and various cognitive processes.
Studies aimed at such effects only recorded weak and short-lived responses. Their results were thus quite irrelevant and often contradictory. There are scores of possible explanations as to why this is the case, but going into details on them does not serve the purpose of this exercise.
The Effects of ABS (Monaural and Binaural Beats)
Research concerning ABS-induced memory enhancement has yielded conflicting results as well. That is indeed rather regrettable, especially considering the promise binaural beats hold in this regard. The tests were conducted at the theta frequency. ABS in this frequency range has been shown to provide individuals a quicker path to meditation.
Two of the mentioned studies used a list of 15 unrelated words, that test subjects had to remember and recite. Long-term and working memory were both put to the test.
The first study used 7 Hz binaural beat stimulation for 30 minutes. The second one used a 5 Hz binaural beat, for 15 minutes, twice a day. The first experiment featured a one-time stimulatory session. The second one ran for 15 days.
The results – as mentioned – were quite unexpected. Apparently, the single-session stimulation with7 Hz binaural beats resulted in an immediate verbal memory decrease.
The 5 Hz experiment on the other hand, yielded a statistically significant increase in the number of memorized words.
The studies highlighted that memory enhancement though ABS was influenced by the binaural beat frequency as well as by the duration of the stimulatory program. It is also a possibility that the benefic affects of binaural beat stimulation may take a while to surface.
The effects of binaural beats on mood modulation have been studied through experiments quite similar to the ones detailed in the Memory section.
Several binaural beat frequency ranges were put to the test however.
One study took a close look at delta and theta frequencies. The theta part of the test featured a 7 Hz binaural beat, which test subjects had to listen to for 30 minutes. Again, this part of the test was a single session one.
The delta part on the other hand, used a binaural beat in the 0-4 Hz frequency range. Test subjects were exposed to these beats daily, for two months.
When the results rolled in, it was made clear that the theta test failed to yield any significant improvements mood-wise. In fact, it made depression worse. On the other hand, the delta treatment managed to decrease fatigue, anxiety, confusion, and tension, thus elevating mood.
In a separate test, researchers used binaural beats in the beta range (16-24Hz), to successfully trigger mood improvement.
The bottom line is obviously that the theta frequency range does not sit well with mood. Even small frequency tweaks can have a major impact on the outcome of such studies. The length/frequency of the treatment is yet another variable.
It bears repeating that most of these tests feature self-reporting and are therefore not entirely reliable accuracy-wise.
Anxiety represents a major target for binaural beat stimulation. Those living with the chronic form of this condition would certainly be willing to undergo binaural beat tests to alleviate their suffering.
Two types of anxiety can be delimited: temporary anxiety, triggered/temporarily sustained by an event/short-term situation, and persistent anxiety, which is a personal trait in many people.
The tests aimed at ABS’s effect on anxiety have used the delta frequency range for binaural beats. In one such test, the subjects were patients awaiting surgery and experiencing pre-operative anxiety. Interestingly, the delta binaural beats achieved a 26.3% decrease in their anxiety.
Still more interestingly: in another test, with 10 Hz binaural beats, even more significant levels of anxiety-reduction were achieved.
Other studies looked at commercially available binaural beat stimulation and assessed the effects of delta frequency stimulation on trait anxiety, with significant positive results.
One would think that the effects of ABS in something as difficult to define as creativity, would be quite impossible to assess. Researchers have come up with an ingenious way to overcome the hurdle though. They simply tested the effects exerted by alpha frequency binaural beats (10 Hz) and gamma frequency beats (40 Hz) on divergent and convergent thinking.
As part of the divergent thinking test, subjects were asked to name as many uses for various household items as they possibly could. Beforehand, they were treated to a 3-minute session of binaural beats. Their Eye Blink rates (an indication of the levels of dopamine in the brain) were also tracked.
The results of the tests were positive: binaural beats helped creative (divergent) thinking, while not having any notable effect on convergent thinking.
Subjects with low dopamine levels were helped by alpha frequency stimulation. Those with high dopamine levels on the other hand were not. Some were even impaired by gamma frequency stimulation.
Overall, the studies did yield some interesting data, though at this point it is quite impossible to draw definitive conclusions from them.
The Ability to Maintain Focus
Studies aimed at the assessment of ABS’s effects on vigilance turned up conflicting results, coupled with a handful of important conclusions.
One test, which used theta and beta frequencies to binaurally stimulate participants, came up empty-handed in regards to effects. Apparently, test subjects were unaffected by stimulation in regards to vigilance. Actual stimulation was applied for 4 minutes during the tests. This fact may explain why no effects were registered: the stimulation period was arguably too short.
Another test – which managed to produce positive results – used binaural beat stimulation for 30 minutes during the tests at the beta and theta/delta frequency ranges. Notably, it also featured lower carrier frequencies.
What’s obvious from the above is that binaural beat stimulation is impacted by a wide range of variables, of which duration of stimulation and carrier frequency levels are also parts.
The potential impact of ABS on attention might present a handy treatment path for conditions such as ADHD. Unfortunately, science has thus far failed to produce a proper body of research on the matter.
There is one study out there which used commercially available binaural beats embedded in nature-sounds to stimulate ADHD sufferers. Unfortunately, it failed to record the exact parameters of the beat stimulation. The results it produced were not particularly encouraging either.
After three weeks comprising three sessions per week of 20 minutes each, participants failed to score higher on objective attention tests. They did however report subjectively improved attention spans.
The bottom line is that more proper research should be put into matter. Some people really do have their quality of life negatively impacted by ADHD, and there does seem to be some promise in ABS in this matter.
ABS has been deemed effective in reducing perceived pain in chronic pain sufferers against placebo (a sham binaural beats-based treatment) by several scientific studies.
Chronic pain is a major public health issue in the US (and presumably elsewhere in the world too), where it affects from 10-50% of the adult population.
One study which evidenced the positive impact of theta frequency binaural beats on chronic pain perception, produced extremely encouraging results. It used 6 Hz binaural beats together with a 300 Hz sham tone. Some participants listened to the “real” binaural beats first and then the sham recording, for 20 minutes a day. Others reversed the order. The study lasted for 14 consecutive days.
The “real” binaural beat treatment resulted in a massive drop in perceived pain, some 77% bigger than the drop produced by the placebo tone.
There is certainly a real effect at work here, one that has been deemed significant enough to allow binaural beat treatment to supplant pain killers to a certain degree in some cases.
Athletic Performance Enhancement and Sleep
The negative effects of sleep deprivation on athletic performance have long been known and documented. A lot less is known about how improving sleep quality impacts athletic performance.
It is obvious that the path to athletic performance enhancement leads through sleep improvement – as far as ABS is concerned. It is therefore impossible to discuss athletic performance enhancement by binaural beats, without talking about sleep improvement.
How do binaural beats act upon sleep?
Binaural beats are effective in inducing brain frequencies associated with sleep.
Binaural beat treatments take advantage of a phenomenon called Frequency Following Response. Apparently, persistent binaural beats prompt the human brain to synchronize its waves to them after a while. The phenomenon is known as brainwave entrainment. This way, not only will brainwaves follow the “lead” provided by the binaural beat, the two hemispheres will sync up as well.
It is important to point out that brainwave entrainment seems to be electromagnetic in nature, rather than acoustic. When electromagnetic headphones and speakers were replaced with air conduction headphones in experiments, the entrainment effect did not occur.
This is the path through which sleep improvement can be promoted. We know quite a bit about healthy sleep cycles and about the brainwave frequencies such sleep cycles entail.
- Just before going to sleep, alpha frequencies (those in the 8-13 Hz range) dominate.
- The first stage of sleep is characterized by theta frequencies (in the 4-7 Hz range). Brainwaves slow down significantly.
- The second stage is the realm of theta frequencies, interspersed with sleep spindles. Brainwave frequencies are in the 11-16Hz range here.
- As one transitions into deep sleep, delta waves takes over. Delta waves are much slower, with a frequency in the 0.5-2Hz range.
- The fourth sleep stage still features about 50% delta waves, mixed in with higher frequency waves.
A sleep cycle lasts about 90 minutes. A sound sleeper will cycle through 5-7 such sleep cycles every night.
Knowing the above and knowing about brainwave entrainment through binaural beats, the path to BB-triggered sleep improvement is obvious.
A sequence of binaural beats of varying frequencies, using a proper carrying frequency, can in effect mimic the healthy sleep cycle. Through the entrainment effect, it can then compel the brain to “execute” this cycle flawlessly.
The question in regards to athletic performance is therefore: do improved sleep and post-sleep states translate to improvements in this respect?
A study done in Germany attempted to answer that question, using young sub-elite soccer players as test subjects.
With this test group, increasing the amount of sleep was not on option. Therefore, focusing on quality was the only way forward.
Following an 8-week period of brainwave entrainment treatment, positive results were registered. Study participants gave higher subjective ratings to sleep quality, awakening, overall sleepiness, and motivational state.
Unfortunately, no translation of these improvements to physical performance was noted.
The study was deemed “first evidence” and as such, a possible trailblazer for future research into the matter.
The Hormonal Impact of Binaural Beats on Sleep
In addition to the direct promotion of healthy sleep cycles, binaural beats were found to have triggered some sleep-promoting hormonal changes too. Specifically, BB therapy affected three hormones: DHEA, melatonin, and cortisol.
Of these, DHEA and cortisol exert opposing effects on sleep. Also known as the stress hormone, cortisol causes alertness. DHEA acts to suppress cortisol, thus promoting relaxation and sleep.
Various scientific studies have found that binaural beat therapy caused increases of DHEA levels in more than 68% of test subjects. This increase was accompanied by a significant reduction in cortisol levels.
Study results were even more spectacular in regards to melatonin. Melatonin plays a major role in promoting and regulating sleep.
ABS raised melatonin levels in some 73% of study participants, by 97% no less.
In addition to all the above, given the complexity of sleep, it is hardly surprising that many of the afore-discussed cognitive processes influenced by binaural beats, also tie up into the sleep equation.
Chronic pain and anxiety are two great examples in this regard. Memory enhancement has an interesting link to sleep as well.
The delta stage (slowest) of sleep, is apparently needed to consolidate memories. The learning process itself merely enters the data into the system. Slow-wave sleep is what thoroughly registers it afterwards.
A study which examined the effects of a 3Hz binaural beat with a 250Hz carrier frequency on sleep, found that it could modulate the duration of the delta stage of sleep and this way contribute to memory consolidation.
Again, the mechanism of action was brainwave entrainment. The 3Hz frequency proved to be ideal for the promotion of slow wave sleep. The extension of the delta stage of sleep was obtained at the expense of the previous stage, which may not be ideal. That said, the decrease in delta stage latency and an overall extension of this stage bodes very well for the memory and for a number of other mental processes. It may indeed have an impact on mood as well.
At the end of the day, everything discussed above seems to tie up nicely, with sleep being the common denominator.
With that in mind, it is safe to conclude that binaural beats exert benefic effects on sleep in scores of ways and through many different pathways. In turn, sleep impacts a number of conditions and cognitive processes.
Binaural Beats and the Realm of Dreams
Given the multitude of ways through which binaural beats act upon sleep, it makes sense to surmise that they can exert significant effects upon dreams too. The same goes for various other altered states of consciousness.
Before we delve any deeper into this issue, let us put forth that the science linking brainwave entrainment to lucid dreaming and other altered states of consciousness is tenuous at best. At worst, it simply does not exist.
This is therefore the point where we leave the solid ground of science, venturing into the realm of pseudo-scientific deductions and theories. Some of these theories seem to be simple cases of “connect the dots” at first glance. Scientific reality is usually much more intricate than theories however.
The areas of most interest from the perspective of lucid dreaming are the gamma and theta brainwave frequency ranges.
Gamma Frequency Binaural Beats and Lucid Dreaming
The reason why the gamma frequency range is so interesting for lucid dreams is that there’s some scientific research out there that seemingly links the two.
First off, a study aimed at 40 Hz binaural beats found that they generated a steady state in the brain present in several areas at the same time. The 40 Hz frequency level stands out, because it has been associated with the waking state and normal wakeful consciousness.
Furthermore, other studies have suggested that 40 Hz gamma synchrony was reported to be present in instances when lucid dreams occurred. The conclusion drawn by researchers was that the gamma frequency band was instrumental in human conscious awareness. Apparently, self awareness may be triggered by the synchronous firing of cortical neurons in this frequency range.
Unfortunately, no one has thus far produced scientifically acceptable proof for this theory. Pushing this train of thought further regardless, lands us in the realm of effective lucid dream manipulation via binaural beats.
If 40 Hz waves are what the brain needs to become self-aware, through brainwave entrainment, such waves can be brought about artificially with binaural beats. Unfortunately, this part of the theory does not seem to work in practice. Binaural beats can be used for sleep manipulation to a certain degree, but lucid dreaming is well outside of their scope.
One simple explanation as to why 40 Hz brain entrainment does not deliver lucid dreams on demand, is that while 40 Hz synchrony may be a required prerequisite of lucid dreaming, it is not the only one.
To achieve self-awareness, the brain likely needs to be activated in several frequency bands in its different areas. 40 Hz gamma waves may only be one small piece of a large puzzle.
That said, no one has thus far disproved the theory either.
Theta Frequency Binaural Beats and Lucid Dreaming
Does the above eliminate binaural beats and brain entrainment as a potential way to trigger lucid dreaming? No. It may in fact have a powerful – albeit indirect – hand in the matter. Theta waves can help with conscious hypnagogia.
Associated with improved focus, meditation, and light states of sleep, theta waves may be key to retaining consciousness under the borderline states between sleep and wakefulness.
With that in mind, viewing binaural beats as a way to prepare the brain for lucid dreaming may be the best approach.
They will help the dreamer achieve a deeply relaxed state before actually falling asleep. This way, they will push at the boundary between sleep and wakefulness, perhaps opening up a little more room for maneuver there for the oneironaut.
Remember and stick to the essentials of lucid dreaming:
- Keep a dream journal. Carefully document your dreams.
- Perform reality checks throughout your day. Pushing a finger into your palm or pinching yourself is such a reality check. If you turn reality checks into a habit, you will likely perform them in your dreams too. It is at that point that you shall realize you are dreaming and achieve consciousness within the dream.
- Put the WILD (Wake Induced Lucid Dreaming) and WBTB (Wake Back to Bed) lucid dreaming techniques to use.
- As far as binaural beat stimulation is concerned, focus on the following:
- Find a dark and quiet place.
- Reserve some 15 minutes of your time for the exercise.
- Use an eye mask if needed.
- Use stereo headphones. You will need them to hear the carrier frequencies properly, thus allowing your brain to construct a proper binaural beat.
- Make it your intention to stay conscious as you fall asleep.
- Relax your body fully and let your mind wander off.
The ideal binaural beat for lucid dreaming is in the theta frequency range. Do not bother with the gamma band. As mentioned, gamma is associated with full consciousness and alertness. While it may be useful for lucid dreaming to have your brain entrained by gamma frequencies when already asleep, it is the last thing you need while trying to fall asleep.
The actual ideal binaural beat frequency is in the 4-7 Hz range. 6 Hz for instance, with a 250 Hz carrier frequency seems like a great idea.
There is actually a study out there which took a look at exactly this kind of binaural beat. The findings of this study were interesting to say the least.
According to it, a 6 Hz, 250 Hz carrier tone binaural beat induced a state in the brain similar to that seen during meditation. It is therefore recommended that such a BB be used for the quick induction of meditative states.
That does seem to fit the picture of WILD very well.
Binaural Beats and OBEs (Out of Body Experiences)
Out of Body Experiences such as Astral Projection have long been associated with brainwave synchronization and extremely deep meditative states. While they still reside in a scientifically grey area, OBEs have been studied quite extensively.
Recently declassified documents are testament to the fact that secret services have entertained the idea of perhaps using Astral Projection for spying/other covert purposes.
Officially, there does not seem to be a well-defined connection between astral projection and binaural beat stimulation. Some AP experts have used anecdotal evidence for years though, to paint binaural beats and ABS in general as useful tools in the arsenal of the astral plain traveler.
Whatever pointers we give you in this regard, originate from such anecdotal evidence and do not carry any scientific validation.
It needs to be re-iterated that in and of themselves, binaural beats cannot induce OBEs, the same way they cannot induce lucid dreaming. They should be viewed as facilitators rather than actual triggers in this regard.
To use BBs to help you achieve astral projection, you will need to know how to meditate and how to astral project. Also, you need to generally pay attention to the following:
- Your sleep pattern needs to be a healthy one.
- The same goes for your diet. Eating late or burdening your innards with difficult-to-digest foods will mess up your sleep.
- Your meditation skills have to be at least decent.
Some say that there are special binaural beats created for astral projection. This is most likely just marketing hype. Now that you understand what binaural beats are and how they work, you won’t fall for such cheap shenanigans.
For binaural beats, you will need a stereo headphone. The tones fed to your two ears are different, and only a stereo headphone can preserve the frequency difference you brain needs to produce the binaural frequency you need.
The theta frequency range is perhaps your best bet when looking to ease into an OBE. A 250 Hz carrier frequency makes perfect sense in this instance too.
Once you settle down comfortably and start up your binaural beats, all you have left to do is to go into your preferred meditation/astral projection technique.
Do not focus on the sound. In fact, the sound should barely be audible. Turn off any technologies such as Dolby or certain sound enhancements that your music player may use.
ABS in general and binaural beats in particular certainly have an impact on human consciousness. This impact is most evident in sleep. Indeed, most of the benefits derived from the use of binaural beats have some sort of connection to sleep.
That said, it is logical that binaural beats may affect altered states of consciousness somehow too. While scientific evidence in this regard is scant, ABS is certainly a promising path for scientific exploration.
In order to use binaural beats, including Hemi-Sync products, you will need stereo headphones. Which headphones should you choose though? Ones that enclose the ear will help reduce ambient room noise and prevent distractions. Earbuds may be more comfortable for side sleepers. The headphones should also be wireless so that you don’t get entangled in the wires.
If you’re like me and you’re uncomfortable with using regular headphones, for example due to lying on your side, there are two options to consider. The first is to use conventional speakers. Though in this case, you will need position yourself between the speakers. The other option which is what I personally do is to use SleepPhones, which are comfortable even for side sleepers.