Focus, creativity, relaxation. These are cognitive states highly prized by the Wise Ape tribe. Looming deadlines means we need laser focus. Other times we need free flowing creativity. And when we’re not working we want to relax and recharge. These different cognitive states (focused, creative, relaxed) correspond with different frequencies of electrical activity in your brain, known as brainwaves. This profound concept gives us the ability to create these cognitive states when we want to. If only we had a way to influence our brainwaves…
Enter binaural beats, a method that uses sound to alter brainwaves, allowing you to more easily slip into your desired mental state. When subjects are using binaural beats, brainwave researchers are able to see changes the brain's electrical activity change on EEGs. Changing the electrical activity in this way is called brainwave entrainment or BWE.
Brainwaves are measured in hertz. A hertz (Hz) being the number of waves that pass by in one second. As a general rule higher brainwave frequencies are good for promoting more focus, vigilance and memory recall. Lower frequencies promote more creativity and relaxation. And the lowest frequencies promote deep sleep. Note, this is only a general rule because BWE researchers are still working out the details.
Here is a breakdown of brainwave wave categories by frequency but take this as a guide only, you will definitely want to self-experiment to see how you respond.
Gama Waves (Over 30 Hz): Gamma brainwaves are associated with focus, recall and math skills. Just be mindful that gamma wave may promote anxiety. In that case try a lower frequency.
Beta Waves (12 - 30 Hz) and Alpha Waves (8 - 12 Hz): These brain waves also promote focus and in studies where subjects reacted to computer prompts, beta wave binaural beats improved vigilance, accuracy and lowered confusion.
Theta Waves (4 - 7 Hz) and Delta Waves (1 - 4 Hz): These waves are associated with creativity and relaxation but use some caution. In the same study with beta waves, theta waves at 4 Hz increased confusion and fatigue. If you react negatively stay go up to alpha wave ranges.
Sub-Delta Waves (Less than 1.5 Hz): Sleeping with headphones can be difficult, but if you can pull it off these waves can enhance your deep sleep.
There is a problem with these frequencies. Humans cannot naturally hear tones below 20 Hz. This means that besides gamma and upper beta waves, these categories are all below human hearing and would essentially be ineffective. However, this biological hurdle can be remedied with beats.
Binaural beats are all about wave interference, which is a fancy way of saying “mixing waves together”. Picture what happens when two speed boats pass in opposite directions. Their waves ram into each other and the various wave peaks and valleys either add into each other OR cancel each other out. The result is a new pattern of waves which we can call a beat.
This beat will happen with sound waves in the air when two speakers are playing similar tones. For example, if one speaker puts out a sound wave at 312 Hz (think of a humming sound) and another puts out 300 Hz, this will create a beat that is equal to the difference of the original frequencies. In this example, the sound waves will crash into each other and produce a beat of: 312 Hz - 300 Hz = 12 Hz. This now allows us to hear those lower frequencies that are normally out of reach for human hearing. Not to mention, listening to something straight at 20 or 30 Hz would be equivalent to an unpleasant thumping or hammering sound. But a beat riding on wave interference (like the example above) can have you and your brain grooving.
Achieving brainwave entrainment requires one more twist. We don’t actually want beats in the soundwaves we need them in the electrical waves of the brain. To get there, binaural beats need to be used with headphones. That way the nerve impulses coming from each ear will interfere and create a beat in your inferior colliculus. From there the beat will cause brainwaves to entrain (sync up) across your cortex. This sync up decreases the electrical noise (think static) in the cortex, enhances long range communication between neurons and creates a temporal structure (think rhythm) that helps information travel around your brain. This is another reason why self-experimentation is a must. Creating that temporal structure may be more important and more beneficial than the frequency you use.
All you need to start surfing the brainwave benefits of binaural beats is a smart phone/computer and a pair of headphones.There are numerous apps and webpages that will pump out the beats for you, many of them free. Some will let you pick the exact frequency and others will prompt you to pick a cognitive mode such as focus or relaxation. Select the beats you want and let your brainwaves sync up, creating the cognitive state you are looking for.
If you want more lively sounds consider something like Brain.fm. This is a subscription service that plays music with carefully timed beats to steer your brainwaves in a direction of your choosing: Focus, Relax, or Sleep. It allows you to set timed play in increments of 30 minutes up to 2 hours, or infinite play. After each session the platform asks you to rate the effectiveness, which then helps their algorithm adapt over time to better fit your personal needs. Brain.fm is available on both desktop and in the app store, and we absolutely love it.
So whether you're trying to increase work productivity or more easily unwind after a long day, try adding binaural beats to your biohacking toolkit. Rock your focused attention when you need it or chill and recharge when you don’t.
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