This recording technique uses tiny differences in frequency to generate two close tones and a third, phantom tone.
In the never-ending quest to either get high or feel better, people are using a sound technology, called “binaural beats,” to mellow their minds. This sophisticated recording technique uses tiny differences in frequency to generate two close tones and a third, phantom tone.
Proponents say the results affect their brains in a profound way, culminating in decades of use and study. Now, a large study of regular people shows how many have been trying binaural beats as a form of therapy or even an intoxicant.
What Does Binaural Mean?
To understand binaural beats, we need to lay down some basics of sound. The term “binaural” means “two sounds,” and binaural recording—without the “beats”—refers to a kind of stereo recording wherein the listener feels totally surrounded by the musicians. (Pearl Jam used it for some of the songs on the 2000 album Binaural.) With binaural beats, the listener is bathed in two sounds that are close in frequency, which means the size and repetition of the waves that make up the sound are similar.
Binaural beats are usually below 1,000 Hertz, which is in the low range of average human hearing. For reference, everyday sounds range from 250 to about 6,000 Hertz. Earbuds manufacturer Nuheara breaks low- and high-frequency sounds into a very recognizable comparison: different letters of the English alphabet. Some letters, like “F” and “S,” and -Th sounds, use air flowing through a much smaller portion of the mouth and are higher in frequency. Other letters, like “U,” “J,” and “Z,” use a larger portion of the mouth and throat and generate lower-frequency sounds.
With binaural beats, these lower-frequency sounds are piped into each side of a pair of headphones with a small difference between them—perhaps 400 Hertz on one side, and 440 Hertz on the other. The brain then tries to make sense of this small difference by isolating a separate 40-Hertz sound, representing the difference between what the two ears are hearing.
How Binaural Beats Affect Your Mood
In a July 2005 paper published in the journal Anaesthesia, researchers broke down five categories of binaural beats patterns. Delta is the lowest frequency difference, just 0.5 to 4 Hertz. Next is theta, between 4 and 7 Hertz. Alpha beats range from 7 to 13 Hertz, and beta is from 13 to 30 Hertz. Finally, gamma includes sounds from 30 to 50 Hertz apart. Delta binaural beats may help people sleep more deeply, for example, while beta beats may help people stay more alert.
In the new research, published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review in March, scientists set out to perform what they call the first formal study of its kind to specifically ask about binaural beats in order to establish a baseline of use around the world. “This paper establishes the existence of the phenomenon of listening to binaural beats to elicit changes in embodied and psychological states,” they write. From there, it can be studied further and in association with other treatments or drugs.
As part of the study, the Global Drug Survey, and independent research company based in London, reached out to people in 22 different countries (in 11 languages), and a total of nearly 31,000 responded. The survey found that 5.3 percent of respondents—over 1,600 people who completed the survey—reported using binaural beats either alone or in combination with other drugs or treatments. “Respondents most commonly used binaural beats ‘to relax or fall asleep’ (72.2 percent) and ‘to change my mood’ (34.7 percent), while 11.7 percent reported trying ‘to get a similar effect to that of other drugs,’” the researchers report.
You Can Find Binaural Beats Online
Most people reported seeking out binaural beats from sites like YouTube, where content to encourage sleep or reduce anxiety is pretty much an entire category of content. There are tons of very popular “sleep aid” types of videos on the site, with meditations and lullabies that have hundreds of millions of plays. Some of the popular binaural beats uploads have tens of millions of plays.
“The mere existence of this phenomenon challenges broadly held assumptions about what drugs actually are,” the researchers write. “It has led us to ask whether mediated digital experiences could also be considered ‘drugs,’ or whether they are better placed as complementary practices alongside drug use.”
Indeed, people have meditated using droning gongs or the low sounds of unified chanting, for example, for hundreds of years. It may be time to study how sound affects our brains in a bit more depth.