What are binaural beats?
Binaural beats are a specially designed type of sound designed to naturally shift the way your brain processes information – including information about pain.
How do binaural beats work?
First of all it’s important to understand that the brain works with chemical and electrical signals. Brainwaves are electrical signals. There are different types of electrical brainwaves, at different frequencies. As this article explains, “Each type of wave reflects a different psychological, neurological and physiological state.” The type of frequency determines which neurons will jump into action and which chemicals will be sent into the bloodstream. This means brainwaves control our bodily processes.
Binaural beats are in essence an auditory illusion. ‘Bi’ means two and ‘aural’ means ear. Binaural beats work by you listening to two different tones, at two different frequencies, one in each ear. Your brain ‘hears’ the beat which is the difference between the two frequencies. For example if you are listening to a frequency of 180 Hz in one ear and 200 Hz in the other ear, your brain will ‘hear’ the beat at 20 Hz (the difference between the two frequencies). Basically, the brain is responding to two different frequencies at the same time, which is also called the Frequency Following Response.
The two tones need to be at frequencies that are less than 1000 Hz. The difference between the two tones needs to be fairly small, at less than 30 Hz. The superior olivary complex is the area of your brain which first processes the sounds that we hear. It’s the superior olivary complex which is ‘tricked’ by binaural beats and synchronizes the neural activity across the brain in response.
This sounds complicated, but it basically means that the superior olivary complex is in charge, like the conductor of an orchestra. It turns the beats we’re hearing into brainwaves and organizes them throughout our brain. This is called entrainment. Entrainment is how the beats we hear affect our brainwaves. It’s thought that listening to binaural beats strengthens specific brainwaves which contribute to relaxation along with emotional and cognitive processing.
Binaural beats were first brought to light in 1839 by a man called H. W. Dove, and then later spoken about in more detail by Gerald Oster. They first began with tuning forks, before these frequencies were able to be recorded accurately so that patient’s could play them back. Oster started to explore the application of binaural beats in relation to health benefits. He used binaural beats to assess hearing ability in patients. He found through his trials that those who struggled to hear binaural beats may have an early predictor for Parkinson’s disease. He also found that men and women perceived the beats differently.
Binaural beats have been used within music, and sometimes to tune instruments. However in the more recent years, their benefits on health have continued to be explored. Many conditions such as chronic pain and mental illness can be treated with binaural beats.
What are the effects of binaural beats on health?
It’s thought that these beats induce the same sort of relaxation state as meditation, creating the same brainwaves as are experienced during a meditative state. Therefore they share many of the benefits of mindfulness including:
- Relaxation and stress relief
As with meditation, binaural beats are thought to relax the body and mind. This in turn relieves stress and worry.
- Increasing focus and concentration
Binaural beats have been tested to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), within which patients struggle to maintain focus on one task among other symptoms. While more research is needed, some potentially promising outcomes were shown.
- Improved memory
A study conducted on recall of a list of words in participants who listen to various frequencies of binaural beats found that those who listened to beats with the 5 Hz range had positive outcomes. The results showed: “a significant increase in the number of words recalled post-stimulation”
- Helping to maintain a stable mood
Some studies have found that binaural beats have increased a general sense of mental wellbeing and positivity, as well as reducing depression and general mood disturbances.
- Reducing anxiety
Binaural beats are thought to be able to reduce anxiety in the longer term when used regularly. They’re also potentially useful in reducing anxiety around a specific situation. In a trial which focused on reducing anxiety in patients who were going to be having surgery, binaural beats were found to reduce anxiety by 26.3%.
- Helping with sleep
Brainwaves are activated by certain frequencies of binaural beats which can help your body and mind to relax, and can help you to sleep more deeply as explained here.
- Increasing creativity
The results of one study found that, “binaural beats at both frequencies affected performance in the divergent, but not convergent thinking tasks.” Divergent thinking is the process by which we come up with creative, spontaneous ideas. During divergent thinking, we come up with more than one solution to a problem, thinking ‘outside the box’ so to speak. While convergent thinking is about finding one ‘correct’ solution to a problem.
For example, if your car was broken down but you needed it to attend a physical therapy appointment, convergent thinking may come up with one solution: fix the car.
While divergent thinking would be more creative such as considering whether you could ask a family member to take you; whether public transport would be more cost effective than fixing your car; whether a taxi would be affordable; whether you could walk; whether it would be more cost effective to get a new car, and so on.
Differences in the frequencies of binaural beats, and the range of brainwaves affected in accordance, can have different benefits. Brainwaves are measured in Hertz (Hz), which means how many cycles per second the brainwave is making. So the lower the Hertz, the less active the brain is. You can see how this correlates below as lower Hertz measurements match up with more relaxation and sleep, while more active Hertz measurements mean the brain is more active.
- Delta range (1 Hz to 4 Hz): relaxation and deep sleep
- Theta range (4Hz to 8Hz): REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement Sleep: when we’re most likely to dream, process thoughts and store information), relaxation, increased creativity, reduced anxiety, improved long term memory.
- Alpha range (8 Hz to 13 Hz): relaxation, positive mood, reduced anxiety, creativity. Commonly occurs during mindfulness and meditation.
- Beta range: (13 Hz to 30 Hz): increased concentration, better focus, increased problem solving ability, improved memory.
- Gamma range: (30 Hz to 50 Hz): increased mental capacity and cognitive activity, increased perception of environment, increased problem solving.
How can binaural beats treat chronic pain?
The research which has been done into binaural beats and specifically using them to treat chronic pain, suggests that they could produce promising outcomes. Unlike many medications, there are no known side effects for chronic pain patients using binaural beats. Listening to these beats can be done in your own home and is therefore very cost effective for both patients and medical professionals.
- Breaking the stress and pain cycle
Stress and pain become a vicious cycle. They perpetuate and worsen one another. Stress can worsen pain in many ways including causing muscles to tense and perpetuating pain messages within the nervous system. However the positive side to this is that when you reduce stress, so you can reduce pain. If binaural beats are able to reduce stress levels and help to break the stress and pain cycle, then the chronic pain symptoms can be reduced.
- Helping with concentration and cognitive processing
Chronic pain patients often struggle with concentration and memory. Persistent pain literally changes the brain through neuroplasticity (simply meaning the brain is changeable). Grey matter, which helps with memory and attention span among other functions, is reduced in those with chronic pain. Other areas of the brain which control cognitive processing and motor function are also affected.
In a healthy brain, when you’re trying to concentrate the area of the brain needed for that task will be active, while the other areas will be ‘quieter’. This enables you to concentrate. However in the brain of someone with chronic pain, the area of the brain which processes and controls emotions is constantly active. It’s ‘noisy’ even when you’re trying to concentrate, which understandably makes it difficult to focus.
Some chronic illnesses, such as fibromyalgia in my case, come along with a cognitive fog (‘fibro fog’), which makes it hard to think, to remember things and to focus on the task at hand. This can be really debilitating.
If binaural beats are able to increase mental capacity, cognitive functioning and concentration levels, this could be very beneficial for those with chronic pain. Potentially this could enable us to function more efficiently.
- Improving sleep
Trying to get comfortable enough to sleep at night when you’re in pain, have tense muscles, and are struggling with other symptoms of chronic pain, can be nearly impossible. Many of those with chronic pain struggle with the fondly named painsomnia (insomnia caused by pain).
This lack of sleep then exacerbates chronic pain symptoms and is detrimental to general physical and mental health. Binaural beats are proven to help patients to sleep more deeply and for longer, which could significantly improve quality of life for pain patients.
- Changing perception of pain
How we perceive our pain has a significant impact on our experience of pain and on our pain levels. By being fearful of pain or having negative perceptions of chronic pain, we are essentially feeding back to our brains that it should continue producing pain messages. If we are excessively worried about our pain to the point that we become hypervigilant or start to catastrophize, this can affect our mental health and contribute to the pain and stress cycle.
Often, negative perceptions of pain will lead to unhelpful actions. For example if we are frightened that being active is going to worsen our pain, we will then start to avoid being active. This is known as fear avoidance and not only can this reinforce pain pathways, but it can also cause deconditioning (weakening of the muscles through lack of use) and have a negative effect on other aspects of physical health.
This in depth study set out to find out whether binaural beats could effectively ‘reset’ the parts of the brain which were producing chronic pain messages. They found that binaural beats were able to change the participants perception of pain, reducing the severity of perceived pain by up to 77%.
More research is required into how binaural beats can affect chronic pain, so that they can potentially be incorporated into treatment and pain self-management. There are many benefits which could markedly improve the lives and level of functioning of chronic pain patients in the longer term.
You can find binaural beats recordings on YouTube, or through a natural pain relief app like ours.. (update Aug 2023: Pathways is now a web app! Start our program here) It’s recommended for optimum results to listen to binaural beats in a quiet, relaxing space and through headphones.
Why not try out this session of binaural beats and see how you feel?
- Góes LG. (2018), “Binaural beats: Brain wave induction and the use of binaural beats to induce brain wave patterns.” Curr Res Integr Med 2018;3(2):15-17.
- Xiaochen Zhang, Qin Gong, (2019), “Frequency-Following Responses to Complex Tones at Different Frequencies Reflect Different Source Configurations”. Front. Neurosci., 26 February 2019
- Leila Chaieb, Elke Caroline Wilpert, Thomas P. Reber, Juergen Fell, (2015), “Auditory Beat Stimulation and its Effects on Cognition and Mood States”. Front Psychiatry. 2015; 6: 70. Published online 2015 May 12.
- Gerald Oster,(1973), “Auditory Beats in the Brain”. Sci Am. 1973 Oct;229(4):94-102
- Kennel S, Taylor AG, Lyon D, Bourguignon C., (2010), “Pilot feasibility study of binaural auditory beats for reducing symptoms of inattention in children and adolescents with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.”. J Pediatr Nurs. 2010 Feb;25(1):3-11.
- Padmanabhan R, Hildreth AJ, Laws D., (2005), “A prospective, randomised, controlled study examining binaural beat audio and pre-operative anxiety in patients undergoing general anaesthesia for day case surgery.” Anaesthesia. 2005 Sep;60(9):874-7.
- Zampi DD., (2016), “Efficacy of Theta Binaural Beats for the Treatment of Chronic Pain.” Altern Ther Health Med. 2016 Jan-Feb;22(1):32-8.
Please note: This article is made available for educational purposes only, not to provide personal medical advice.