Illustration: Janet Mac

Bad Ideas

Binaural Beats Promise Enlightenment. Mostly, They’re Just Noise.

I spent one week using binaural beats and came away unchanged

Published in
5 min readApr 9, 2020


Welcome to Bad Ideas, a column in which we examine the practical limits of technology by considering the things you could do and then investigating exactly why you shouldn’t. Because you can still learn from mistakes you’ll never make.

InIn October 1973, Gerald Oster, a biophysicist turned artist, published a paper in Scientific American about a curious auditory illusion: If you play two slightly different frequencies through a pair of headphones, one in each ear, the brain will “hear” a third frequency, creating a pulsating beat that isn’t present in the original audio. He called it a binaural beat and suggested it could be used as a clinical assessment of brain function.

In the decades since, binaural beats have gone from science museum curiosity to a 2000s-era digital panic and an internet wellness craze. Enthusiasts assert that the beats’ ability to synchronize the brainwaves of both hemispheres of the brain allows us to “hack” our minds into a range of desired moods and states. Listen to high-frequency binaural beats, known as gamma waves, and you’ll become more focused; meanwhile, lower frequencies such as alpha and theta waves will help you relax, meditate, and even fall asleep.

There’s no shortage of ways to listen to binaural beats. At the cheaper end of the spectrum, there are free online beat generators, official Spotify playlists, and YouTube channels with unironic galaxy brain thumbnails. And if you want to spend a bunch of money on binaural beats, you can do that too: Paid services like I-Doser charge you per “dose” of binaural beats. NuCalm charges users $4,695 for a “Personal Use” package containing headphones, biosignal processing discs, and an online MP3 library.

On the r/Binauralbeats subreddit, an online community of 2,000 binaural beaters, people troubleshoot their regimens, discuss…