Mind & Body

Listening to binaural beats could improve your productivity, memory and reduce anxiety

Binaural beats is an emerging form of soundwave therapy that studies suggest may help to improve focus and creativity, as well as easing symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

For many of us, 2020 has been the year we misplaced our mojo – focus and creativity flying out the window in the face of such extraordinarily tumultuous times.

But what if there was a cost-effective way to re-calibrate your brain ready to take on a more positive 2021? It could be as easy as putting on a set of headphones.

Welcome to the world of binaural beats – made for your brain not your feet.

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What are binaural beats, and how do they work?

Binaural beats (BB) is an emerging form of soundwave therapy. A binaural beat (BB) occurs when two tones, almost identical, but with a small difference between their frequencies are presented to different ears. The brain synchronises them to create a single tone.

It’s believed this auditory stimulation may influence behaviour and improve focus and memory.

There are different types of BBs – many are set to relaxing instrumental music or ‘embedded’ into soundscapes such as the sea or forest, but pure BBs are have no background sounds. They are are merely ‘tones’.

What can you use binaural beats for?

A host of studies have been done around the world on the effect of BBs. According to Miguel Garcia-Argibay PhD, of Örebro University in Sweden, who has studied binaural beats, they have shown positive effects in attention, memory, creativity, anxiety, and pain reduction.

“Recent research by a Spanish colleague of mine has shown beneficial effects on Parkinson disease too,” Garcia-Argibay says.

Binaural beats could ease both anxiety and depression

Promising results have been shown in using BBs for relieving anxiety in patients in hospital emergency departments, on patients waiting to undergo operations, psychiatric outpatients with anxiety disorders and for depressive symptoms in older people in nursing homes.

“Brain coach”, Helen Dugdale of Australian Brain Coaching uses BBs combined with positive affirmations to assist clients with anxiety.

“Binaural beats is one of the methods of bilateral stimulation which also helps reduce anxiety and promote positive neural connections,” she says. Dugdale cites a client who has sleep issues and exhibited OCD behaviours who found the use of BBs helpful.

“He used binaural beats along with the mantra he came up with – now he sleeps really well and he also doesn’t let mess upset him as much. Another client got by on about three hours every night, as she felt that she had to right the wrongs of the world. Now she listens to her binaural beats music every evening, sleeps up to seven hours a night and she doesn’t get so upset about things at work or with her family.”

Binaural beats can improve Focus

Other research has focused on…focus.

In a 2018 study, students at the University of Southern Denmark were given a ‘mind wandering task’ both with and without binaural beats. The group that listened to 15 minutes of binaural auditory beats had a 21 per cent increase in their ability to focus on the task.

Bernice Watson, a part-time law student who was recently introduced to BBs has been using them for focus and memory retention while studying. “A friend mentioned it to me – fortuitously, as I was entering a heavy study period and having trouble with achieving any sustained focus. I initially used them while studying a law subject with a lot of reading required.”

Watson says that she found she was more focused, and less distracted studying while listening to BBs. “I understood what I was studying without having to read it several times. It was all a lot clearer. They’ve definitely become an essential part of my study tool kit.”

There are also preliminary studies on using BBs for increased focus in people with ADHD.

How to use binaural beats

According to Miguel Garcia-Argibay, you should select BBs with different frequencies ,depending on your goal.

“For example, beta and alpha frequencies are usually used for cognitive enhancement. Theta and delta, on the other hand, have been used mainly for relaxation/meditation purposes. There is some evidence that gamma frequencies may also have an effect on creativity and cognition, but further studies are needed to confirm it and clarify what frequencies are effective”

So, if you want to be focused and alert or improve your memory, listen to a BB within the alpha or beta frequency, while if you need to slow down and relax, or if you’re feeling anxious, listen to BBs in the delta or theta frequency.

According to Garcia-Argibay, BBs are most effective if used for more than nine minutes.“I would also recommend listening to them using a good pair of headphones; this seems to be important,” he says.

A 2019 meta-analysis published in Psychological Research also suggests that binaural beat exposure before and during the task produces superior results to just exposure during the task.

Where to get binaural beats

You can find playlists organised by frequency (alpha, beta, theta or delta) or by usage type on Spotify and YouTube etc. for BBSs specifically for focus, or for relaxation.

What binaural beats won’t do

While binaural beats may help with everything from anxiety to lack of concentration, Miguel Garcia-Argibay says that it’s important to steer clear of some of the other more unlikely claims around, such an emerging therapy.

“There is absolutely no evidence of certain claims that one can see on YouTube such as binaural beats having an effect on growth hormone, confidence, serotonin, healing and other nonsense,” he says.

And while, binaural beats may give many of us that little brain boost to finish off a project or feel less anxious, Miguel Garcia-Argibay cautions that they are not for everybody.

“In my research I’ve encountered some people who got a headache after listening to them. So if you experience any discomfort, you should stop listening to them.”