Binaural beats are said to tune your brainwaves towards particular frequenciesC D-X via Unsplash

Maybe you’ve tried listening to alpha beats to boost your concentration when working on that essay or chill out to delta beats when falling asleep. Or maybe, you’ve never heard of binaural beats at all and think I’m just talking about random Greek letters...

Binaural beats, as the name suggests, are an auditory illusion wherein two slightly different frequencies of sound are played into each ear (so you must be listening through headphones for this to work!). Your brain then perceives the volume of the tune to oscillate at a fixed rate – a beat. The frequency of the beat is the same as the difference between the two frequencies, which can be higher (such as gamma, in the range of 38-100Hz) or lower (such as delta – usually 0.5-3Hz).

“Binaural beats can be used to improve long- and short-term memory, attention, and help to strengthen neurological connections”

This phenomenon is due to a brain region called the superior olivary complex – in addition to allowing us to identify the direction of incoming sounds, synchronise neural activity from different brain regions into ‘brainwaves’ (a process called entrainment). Brainwaves occur when many neurons fire together with the same rhythm and are measurable using EEG, a technique in which electrodes are placed on the scalp to record electrical signals. Brainwaves are associated with different emotional or cognitive functions – for example, delta waves are considered beneficial in inducing a sleepy or meditative state, alpha waves are associated with working memory and thought coordination, while beta waves promote active problem solving and concentration. Interestingly, brainwaves of the highest frequency, or gamma waves, are poorly understood by scientists, who hypothesise that they are involved in active consciousness, peak cognitive functioning, and self-awareness.

So, where do binaural beats come in? Essentially, listening to binaural beats is hypothesised to tune your brain to, and increase the strength of certain brainwaves, subsequently enhancing or suppressing the associated cognitive and emotional functions. When listened to while studying, they improve long- and short-term memory and attention while helping to strengthen neurological connections. Other benefits include improving sleeping habits or ease into entering a meditative state. However, despite no definite medical evidence supporting their clinical benefits, some studies advocate their use for the treatment of anxiety or stress-related disorders as an addition to conventional treatments; with reports of increased quality of life, decreased stress, or decreased preoperative anxiety in patients due to receive generalised anaesthesia.

“Gamma waves are hypothesised to be involved in active consciousness, peak cognitive functioning, and self-awareness”

However, despite the studies in favour, general evidence on the effectiveness of binaural beats is currently inconclusive: multiple studies found that binaural beat therapy does not affect brain activity or emotional stimulation. The effects may differ between individuals, and scientists add that more experimental studies are required, focusing on understanding the processes behind entrainment – as well as how they translate to our actual behaviours. It is also important to note that while entrainment is used for communicating thoughts, emotions, and processing in healthy adults, it is also involved in disorders such as epilepsy. When epileptic patients’ brains become entrained to a certain frequency of flashing lights, this leads to overstimulation and seizures.


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Nonetheless, others report that despite the positive effect possibly being due to placebo, it may still prove useful. It is also a therapy that can be self-administered with no training, so it is an easy option to try alongside other medical treatments.

Ultimately, while some may find listening to weird sounds irritating or unproductive, there is no evidence of any adverse effects; so if you are feeling stressed, want to better your concentration, or fall asleep more easily, why not try putting on a pre-made Spotify playlist. There’s no harm in trying – just don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t work.