An Auditory Illusion: Understanding Binaural Beats
When you're engrossed in a piece of music with your headphones on, have you ever experienced a rhythmic pulsation, not part of the music itself, but a strange "beat" that seems to exist somewhere in between your ears?
This is known as a binaural beat.
But, what exactly are binaural beats?
A binaural beat is really nothing more than an auditory illusion that is perceived when two different sound tones, close but not identical in pitch, are played separately into each ear.
This creates a fascinating effect - the illusion of a beat, a throbbing pulse that exists only within your brain.
For instance, if your left ear is exposed to a 440Hz tone, and your right hears a 480Hz tone, your brain will perceive a 40Hz beat. It's a mind trick - the auditory version of an optical illusion.
The perception of these beats seems to take root in the auditory cortex and the brain stem.
The "Shepard Tone" is a similar auditory illusion, which creates the illusion of a tone forever ascending or descending. Again the illusion exists entirely within the brain. Unlike binaural beats, the Shepard Tone makes no claims of dramatic changes in emotions or other states of mind.
Unlike monaural beats, which are physically created and can be distinctly heard in either ear, binaural beats are a product of the brain's interpretation of two slightly different frequencies.
Think of binaural beats like the auditory equivalent to a "magic eye" poster, or one of those swirling visual illusions often shared on Instagram or Facebook. Fascinating, but more of an oddity than a powerful therapeutic tool.
History Unplugged: The Origin and Journey of Binaural Beats
Binaural beats have an intriguing history, tracing their roots back to the 19th century. Discovered by a Prussian scientist named Heinrich Wilhelm Dove in 1839. Dove made no claims regarding the influence of binaural beats on the human mind, but instead considered them an interesting auditory illusion.
Binaural beats lingered in obscurity for over a hundred years, before their resurgence in the 1970s, and have become a popular curiosity for new-age explorers and would-be psychonauts ever since.
Dove's discovery, which had nothing to do with the influence of binaural beats on the human mind, once rediscovered led to various new-age theories and hypotheses suggesting that these beats might affect the human brain in unique ways, leading to changes in our state of consciousness, and even potentially inducing altered states such as lucid dreaming.
These theories remain unproven, serving as a reminder of the vital difference between speculation and evidence-backed scientific fact.
The Role of The Monroe Institute
Following the cultural creative and spiritual explosion of the 1960s, the world was awash with strange, exotic, and occasionally absurd new ideas. Among these was a rekindled interest in, and rebranding of, binaural beats.
Binaural beats came into the limelight in the 1970s, this was largely due to Robert Monroe, a radio broadcasting executive, who turned his hand to the world of new-age exploration and products, to become the founder of what he called the "Monroe Institute." However, the institute's academic-sounding name can be a little misleading. It's important to understand that while the Monroe Institute operates as an independent non-profit entity, it is funded by the sale of rather costly new-age personal development tools and courses (including binaural beat recordings), which they allege induce altered states of consciousness.
This distinction is crucial, as it has potentially influenced the mainstream perception of binaural beats, possibly making them seem more scientifically validated than they actually are.
Following in the success of the Monroe Institute, many new-age businesses sprung-up in the 1970's, 80's, and 90's selling similar binaural beat products. This further increased the public belief in their influence.
Today, similar recordings are widespread on social media sites such as YouTube.
The (Very) Questionable Role of Binaural Beats in Lucid Dreaming
In recent years, the concept of using binaural beats to induce lucid dreams has gained traction.
Lucid dreaming, the phenomenon where a sleeper is aware that they're dreaming, is a topic that excites many. So, unsurprisingly, the idea that one can simply listening to certain sound frequencies can help achieve this state is enticing, to say the least.
Unfortunately, it is entirely unfounded.
We must remain critical. Neuroscience and psychology, the fields most relevant to understanding the dreaming mind, require rigorous scientific validation for any claim.
As of now, the idea that binaural beats can reliably induce lucid dreaming entirely lacks evidence or rigorous scientific research.
The Fragile Evidence Supporting Binaural Beats
Despite marketing claims promoting binaural beats as a reliable solution for inducing lucid dreams or other states of mind, the scant evidence supporting these assertions remains lacking and highly questionable.
The published literature on binaural beats' effects on brain activity or emotions is inconsistent and inconclusive at best.
A handful of small studies, often by organisations with a vested interest in selling binaural beats, suggest that they might have a very modest effects on memory, attention, anxiety, and pain perception.
But, there are an equal number of studies showing no effects on key physiological markers like EEG activity, heart rate, or skin conductance.
This clear contradiction in scientific findings points towards one conclusion: binaural beats are far from being an established, proven, or consistent tool for inducing lucid dreams or any altered states of consciousness.
The Placebo Effect: An Alternative Explanation for the Effects of Binaural Beats
Given the lack of consistent scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of binaural beats, one likely explanation for any perceived benefits could be the placebo effect.
In simple terms, the placebo effect suggests that our beliefs and expectations can significantly influence our perception of outcomes, and our subjective interpretation of experiences. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to experiences like lucid dreaming.
If you believe that binaural beats will help you achieve lucid dreams, any experience of lucidity, even if entirely unrelated, may be falsely assigned to the influence of binaural beats.
Furthermore, a common method for inducing lucid dreams is to maintain focus on a single thought, sound, or idea. Binaural beats could easily be used for this purpose, however it's important to note that ANY sound would have the same influence. Many people misunderstand the placebo effect, learn more about it here.
Binaural Beats and Lucid Dreaming: More Myth than Magic?
While the appeal of binaural beats for inducing lucid dreams persists, the evidence invites a good deal of caution and skepticism. It's crucial to remember that scientific truth is not determined by the number of Spotify playlists, YouTube videos, or even the backing of entities that sell such products, like the Monroe Institute.
It's also important to be aware of the mind's tendency towards magical thinking and easy solutions. Neither of which are helpful for lucid dreaming, and are, in fact, detrimental to the practice. Binaural beats fit these criteria perfectly.
True scientific validation relies on rigorous, peer-reviewed research, which the field of binaural beats is currently entirely lacking.
So, if you're considering using binaural beats to achieve lucid dreaming or any other altered state, approach it with a discerning mind.
After all, the human brain, with its billions of neurons and complex circuitry, is unlikely to be tricked into profound experiences by a simple pair of headphones and a computer generated tone.
Stay lucid, and remember that to master lucid dreaming, you need to first master the ability to establish fact from fiction.