The phenomena of binaural beats and brainwave entrainment can induce the same mental state associated with traditional meditation practice, but quickly.
Our brains have been called “random thought generators.”
The best way by far to limit negative thoughts and reduce stress is with meditation.
Over 1,00o studies have shown that meditation can make you smarter, happier, and healthier. (6)
Regular meditation can reduce stress, stimulate new brain cell formation, and slow down the rate of brain cell aging.
But anyone who has tried traditional meditation can tell you that quieting your mind this way is not easy.
It can take years to master.
For those who struggle with focus and concentration, meditation can be frustrating and can become an additional source of stress.
In the past 50 years, technologies have been developed that can induce the same brainwave state as meditation by simply listening to certain sounds.
One of the most popular forms of sound technology used for this purpose is known as binaural beats.
Using binaural beats technology is claimed to bring about the same state as meditation, but quickly.
But how do binaural beats work?
And can this technology really confer the same benefits as traditional meditation?
Understanding Brain Waves
To fully understand binaural beats, you need to know a few basics about brain waves and a concept called brainwave entrainment.
Your brain cells generate electricity as a way to communicate with each other.
This electrical activity forms patterns known as brain waves.
These patterns can be measured by electroencephalography (EEG), a method of recording electrical activity along the scalp.
Scientists have found five main patterns, or types, of brain waves:
Each brainwave state is associated with different states of consciousness.
You normally go in and out of different brainwave states depending on what you are experiencing.
But it’s possible to manipulate your brain waves by meditating or by using binaural beats or other kinds of sound technology.
Binaural beats cause your brain to synchronize, or entrain, itself with the beat frequency.
This has the effect of inducing a desired brainwave pattern, letting you experience the benefits of that brainwave state at will.
Here’s a brief rundown on the characteristics of each state of consciousness. (7)
Delta Brain Waves (below 4 Hz)
Delta waves are the lowest frequency brain wave and occur during deep, dreamless, restorative sleep.
Sleep is not simply the absence of being awake. It has its own stages and associated brainwave patterns.
Theta Brain Waves (4 – 7 Hz)
Theta waves are associated with the drowsy state you experience as you are falling asleep or during light sleep.
They can also be experienced during meditation.
The theta state is characterized by deep relaxation, daydreaming, and creativity.
Alpha Brain Waves (8 – 15 Hz)
Your brain enters the alpha brainwave state almost immediately whenever you close your eyes.
Alpha waves are associated with relaxed wakefulness and can occur during light meditation.
Many brainwave meditations seek to induce this state since it’s the alpha state that’s believed to facilitate a bridge between conscious thought and the unconscious mind.
Beta Brain Waves (16 – 31 Hz)
As long as you are physically active and mentally alert, you probably spend most of your waking day in a beta state.
Since the hallmark of the beta state is one of heightened alertness, it can be overdone.
Spending too much time in the beta state leads to stress and anxiety.
Gamma Brain Waves (32 and above Hz)
Gamma brain waves (not to be confused with gamma rays) are the highest frequency brain waves.
They are the most recently discovered since they could not be measured until the development of digital electroencephalography.
They are also the least understood.
When in the gamma brainwave state, it is thought that the senses are sharpened, and feelings of happiness and peace predominate.
It’s this state that you tap into whenever you’re in “the zone” — the state of peak performance.
Heightened focus, super concentration, and massive productivity are all said to be yours when you’re in the gamma state.
One study found that Buddhist monks can induce a gamma state through meditation. (8)
Brainwave Entrainment and Binaural Beats
Brainwave entrainment is a high-tech sounding name for a very natural phenomenon.
If you’ve ever been mesmerized by the sound of ocean waves or a crackling fire, you’ve experienced brainwave entrainment.
The phenomenon of entrainment was discovered by a Dutch scientist over four hundred years ago. (9)
He noticed that his room full of pendulum clocks synchronized automatically.
Even when he intentionally disrupted their rhythms, they would always re-synchronize.
Entrainment is commonly seen in nature. Fireflies entrain their flashing lights and frogs entrain their croaking.
When you listen to sounds of a certain frequency, your brain waves will synchronize with that frequency.
You entrain every time you hear a musical beat that has you bobbing your head or tapping your foot.
By listening to MP3s or CDs that produce brainwave entrainment, you can induce a desired brainwave pattern quickly and reliably.
Binaural beats is one of the most popular methods to utilize the phenomenon of brainwave entrainment.
Others you may have heard of are isochronic tones, monaural beats, and audiovisual entrainment.
How Binaural Beats Work
Humans can generally hear sound frequencies in the range of 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz. (10)
This means that our brainwave frequencies mostly fall below our audible range.
So how can we get our brains to entrain to sounds we can’t hear?
The binaural beats phenomenon is the key. (Binaural means “two ears.”)
When two tones that are slightly dissimilar in frequency are processed by the brain, it registers a beat at the difference of the frequencies.
The diagram below illustrates how this works in practice.
If you listen to a 124 Hz sound in your left ear, and a 114 Hz sound in the right, your brain entrains to the difference — in this case to 10 Hz, which is in the alpha brain wave frequency range.
Since each ear has to perceive a different frequency for binaural beats to be created, binaural beats are best experienced when the two tones are heard through stereo headphones.
The Advantages of Binaural Beats Over Meditation
Mindvalley, one of the world’s largest personal development publishers, surveyed their customers to understand “why people don’t meditate.”
Their customers were certainly aware of the benefits of meditation. So what were the obstacles to their actually practicing meditation?
According to the 400,000+ people who responded, the main reasons people don’t stick with a meditation practice are:
- They can’t tame their mental chatter.
- They can’t focus.
- They feel physically restless.
- It takes too long to get the desired results.
Do any of these reasons sound like anything you’ve experienced? Yeah, me too.
Using binaural beats provides an easy shortcut.
All you have to do is put on a set of headphones or earplugs, relax, and listen.
For many people, this brings their brains into the same state as deep meditation quickly.
Scientific Evidence That Binaural Beats Work
It’s said that we’ve learned more about the brain in the past 15 years than in all of previous history. (11)
Our understanding of most things related to the brain, be it brain training or how to treat brain disorders, is in its infancy.
The study of how to manipulate brain waves for the enhancement of brain health and mental well-being is no different.
Unfortunately, much of the information available on brainwave entrainment and binaural beats is published by companies selling products based on these technologies.
And a lot of it is of the “woo woo” variety.
One study, A Comprehensive Review of the Psychological Effects of Brainwave Entrainment, is often cited as the gold standard on the effectiveness of brainwave sound technology.
This meta analysis of peer reviewed studies found that using these technologies, including binaural beats, was beneficial for the following:
- attention deficit
- behavioral disorders
- cognitive decline
- headaches including migraines
- learning disabilities
- learning disorders
- mental disorders
- premenstrual syndrome
- verbal learning
Just one session of brainwave entrainment meditation was claimed to be helpful for memory, attention, stress, pain, headaches, and migraines.
You can find a copy of the study, along with references to dozens of other studies, here.
There are a few downsides to this study.
The author of the study, Dr. Tina Huang, was an employee of Transparent Corporation, a company that sells sound technology software, when she published the study.
Also, this study was done in 2008 which by neuroscience standards makes it pretty old.
Trying Binaural Beats Meditation
If you’ve never listened to a binaural beats sound file before, click on the arrow below to play a sample.
Ideally, you should listen with headphones to get the full effect, but this will give you a general idea of what binaural beats sound like.
File courtesy of Wikipedia
You may find, as I do, that this sound is not all that pleasant to listen to!
That’s why most binaural beats meditation MP3s or CDs are overlaid with music or environmental sounds.
The effect of binaural beats and brainwave entrainment is to bring about one of the states associated with meditation — usually alpha or theta, or sometimes the gamma state.
Other programs are available to help alleviate specific problems or achieve specific goals.
There are binaural beats audio programs designed to induce sleep, reduce anxiety, and increase weight loss, concentration, or study skills.
One of the most unusual uses of binaural beats technology is to encourage lucid dreaming, a state of consciousness in which dreamers are aware that they are dreaming, to achieve various cognitive and emotional benefits.
Binaural Beats Warnings
Binaural beats could be a problem if you have epilepsy or an irregular heartbeat, especially if you wear a pacemaker. (12)
Since brain waves and heart rhythms are electrical patterns, it is theoretically possible that they can be negatively disrupted by binaural beats.
Binaural Beats and Meditation: The Bottom Line
Meditation is one of the best things you can do for your health, mental well-being, and even your longevity.
But for many people, mastering meditation is hard, frustrating, and time-consuming.
The use of binaural beats sound technology is an easy shortcut to achieve a meditative state of consciousness.
While the science surrounding this technology is still in its infancy and there is still much to be learned about it, it is widely considered safe and often very effective.
There is some scientific research and a lot of anecdotal evidence that using binaural beats meditation programs can provide the same benefits as traditional meditation.
I personally use a variety of traditional and binaural beats meditations in my daily meditation practice.