Search “Binaural Beats” on YouTube and you’ll find hundreds of hours-long videos with vaguely psychedelic visuals and millions of views. The titles often make snake oil claims to “open your third eye”, “heal your chakras”, or increase mood and concentration. But just how do these things work, and will they have any effect on me?
To understand how binaural beats work, we have to understand a little bit about how our ears work and process sounds. Because of the placement of our ears, sounds will arrive to each ear at slightly different times, and our brain “combines” these two pieces of information to locate where a sound is coming from. But when two sounds arrive at each ear at the same time, the brain combines these separate sounds and we perceive them as one. This is the concept used by binaural beats. By playing a sound wave of one frequency in the left ear and a wave of another frequency in the right ear, a totally separate wave is perceived by the listener. This new wave has a frequency equal to the difference between the frequencies of the two initial waves. For instance, playing a tone with frequency 300 Hz in the left ear and a tone with frequency 315 Hz in the right ear will produce a perceived tone with frequency 15 Hz.
This is significant when coupled with the idea of biomusical entrainment, which proposes that certain organic processes will synchronize to a perceived rhythm. This phenomenon is what allows people to find the tempo of a song and start tapping you foot to the beat without actively thinking about it. In the case of binaural beats, the idea is that a perceived tone with a frequency that matches the frequency of a certain type of brainwave will increase the production of that type of brainwave. So from the example above, a 15 Hz tone will increase production of beta waves, which are associated with concentration and being mentally active.
For my purposes, increasing concentration seemed like the way to go, so I looked on youtube for a video in the beta wave frequency. Because the binaural tone is one single tone, it’s not very interesting to listen to. To combat this, the makers of these videos will often play some atmospheric music at a low volume over the tone. With an acceptable four hour long video found and queued up, I hit play and got to work.
Normally I find myself getting bored and checking social media every thirty minutes or so, if only for a few minutes, but with this setup I was able to chug away at my work for a solid two hours without interruption. In addition to being able to work for a longer period of time, I also experienced more mental clarity and things seem to come to mind and make sense much more easily than they normally would. Obviously this wasn’t even close to being a controlled experiment and the effects I experienced could have come from any number of things. But as a whole it was a positive experience and I wouldn’t rule out going back to one of these videos if I find it hard to concentrate in the future.