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

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 headphone recommendations, and, more often than not, offer up advice on how to “believe” in binaural beats in order to increase their effectiveness.

“[Binaural beats] work a lot better the more you believe in them (the same principle applies with hypnotherapy) because you manifest into reality what you believe in,” writes one subreddit member, GodDangitBobbby. “Everything is energy, frequency, and vibration.”

“I lay down and meditate with binaural beats not because the sounds are changing my life, but because they help me relax deeper while I’m meditating,” one user, ThePretzelBunPlaya, recently told another who was lamenting the ineffectiveness of the beats. “It’s not something you can force, you can’t just convince yourself with affirmations that you’re motivated.”

Ultimately, binaural beats are just the latest in an endless string of wellness fads — meditation, nootropics, lucid dreaming, and even astral projection — that promise to manifest the remarkable through the unremarkable. All one has to do to unlock the secrets of the universe is to take these pills, believe in yourself, and listen to carefully modulated tones.

“Everything is energy, frequency, and vibration.”

But who am I to judge? If I’m going to be stuck inside my apartment for the foreseeable future, near-constantly worrying and wondering, I might as well try to see if I can hack my brain with nothing but sine waves.

Over the course of a week, I would listen to high-frequency tones during the day for their purported creativity and productivity qualities. In the evening, I would wind down with lower frequency beats. Best case, I finally pry open my third eye, unlocking a new plane of cognition and relaxation; worst case, I drive myself mildly insane listening to glorified noise.

For the first two days, the transition from listening to music — something that I, a cool person, regularly do — to binaural beats was surprisingly smooth. Because I do a lot of reading and writing for work, I already prefer to listen to ambient electronic music during the day. To go from synths to sine waves was just like paring back my music consumption to the bare essentials: something noticeable enough to drown out the sounds of my apartment but unobtrusive enough to just sit in the background. In some respects, switching to binaural beats made this easier — I didn’t even have to think too much about what I was listening to.

Binaural beats didn’t hurt my productivity, but it wasn’t clear they helped either. At no point did I feel like I was demonstrably more productive, relaxed, or enlightened. And after a few days of subjecting myself to them, the binaural beats went from background noise to annoying distraction. Like suddenly realizing that your tongue is heavy or that you’re manually breathing, there would be moments where I couldn’t help but become hyperfocused on the fact that I was listening to nothing more than illusory noise.

It got worse at night. I already have my bedtime routine dialed: melatonin and one episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Getting into bed, putting on headphones, and trying to fall asleep to theta-wave binaural beats proved to be, more than anything, a great way to keep from falling asleep. It’s not that the binaural beats were doing anything in particular; it’s just listening to them wasn’t part of my already-established bedtime routine. By the third night, I got used to it, but I don’t think my sleep habits were enhanced by the beats.

It got worse at night.

Current research on binaural beats suggests that my own underwhelming experience is par for the course. Earlier this year, researchers found that while binaural beats have a demonstrable ability to alter our brainwaves, they do not have a measurable effect on mood.

Hector Orozco Perez, the lead author of the study, has a background in music production, electrical engineering, and neuroscience. Orozco Perez says that up until now, the science on binaural beats has not been great. “It’s a mix of surprisingly well-done science, coupled with things that should not have been published,” he says.

“When you look at the earlier papers that were published regarding binaural beats, you will actually find that a lot of the more strong results come from people that have experience with binaural beats for meditation,” he says. “It’s unclear if it’s because their brains work a little differently or if it’s just a placebo effect — like they really want it to work.”

That’s not to say that binaural beats are completely junk science. “We did find connectivity patterns that were specific to binaural beats,” Orozco Perez says, suggesting that they do have a measurable unique effect on the brain. “But regardless of this, we did not find any modulation of mood. So people did not report feeling more relaxed with theta beats or more focused with gamma beats.”

That said, a 2016 study found that listening to beta-wave binaural beats increased accuracy in a working memory test by 3%. Not the transcendent transformation promised by binaural beats companies but a slight increase nonetheless.

Will listening to binaural beats hack your brain into a new realm of understanding and enlightenment? The science doesn’t seem to suggest so. Would exclusively listening to them over the course of a week slowly drive you up a wall? In my experience, yes. Can they serve as a mode of exerting control — however empty — during what is an increasingly chaotic and unpredictable time? Most definitely.

I write about technology. Regular contributor to Medium’s OneZero. Seen in Vice, Businessweek, The Outline and others. he/him. steverousseau.org

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