Okay, there’s sort of an astonishing lack of science among both believers and disbelievers in binaural beats. I’m hoping to clear some of that up.
1. Binaural beats purportedly work through cognitive entrainment. They can affect dopamine levels in the brain. People with already high dopamine levels will be slowed down by alpha and gamma binaural beats, while people with low dopamine levels benefitted in terms of cognitive thinking. So, for some people binaural beats will be beneficial, and for others it will be neutral or potentially disruptive. It’s worth noting that this study estimated dopamine levels through spontaneous eye blink rates which may or may not be an accurate measurement. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24294202)
2. In one study, listening to binaural beats within the first 20 minutes after exercising, helped calm down the body and aided in recovery. Outside of that 20 minute window the effects were no longer noticable. “As compared to the placebo visit, the binaural-beat visit resulted in greater self-reported relaxation, increased parasympathetic activation and increased sympathetic withdrawal.” This means that, at least in this case, binaural beats are more effective than placebo. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25452734)
3. In a study of adolescent soccer players, those who listened to binaural beats at night in the 2-8Hz range performed better with regards to sleepiness, awakening quality, and post-sleep state than those who slept on the same pillow but did not listen to binaural beats. “eight weeks of auditory stimulation with binaural beats improved perceived sleep quality and the post-sleep state of athletes”. However, there were no recorded or detected physical benefits otherwise. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23862643)
4. A study in New Zealand on patients waiting in an emergency room found that providing ipods with headphones playing music with embedded binaural beats reduced patient reported anxiety levels. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22171868)
Several studies have not been able to detect any difference in qEEG or brainwave readings using binaural beats. Also, many of these studies had small sample sizes. This means two things:
1. The mechanism of action of binaural beats is not clearly distinguished, and while it appears to affect things like Heart Rate Variability, it does not appear to be detectable in EEG studies, so claims of “increasing alpha/theta/etc brain waves” are questionable at best.
2. More research is needed into binaural beats. All of the studies I listed above, the results were subjective and self-reported. They were all compared to placebo groups and all come from peer reviewed journals, but there is not a firmly established mechanism of action or neurological response to explain these effects.
Binaural beats may not work for everyone. They are not a magic pill. if they work for you, great, go ahead and use them, there is evidence that they are relaxing and calming for most people, however do not believe anyone’s claims about “health benefits” outside of subjective mood enhancement and relaxation until they have been proven.