As we think, our brain produces brainwaves where our neurons fire in concert with one another. By measuring the frequency of those brainwaves—the speed at which the neurons fire, then rest—we can determine what state our brain is in.
Brainwaves can roughly be divided into five ranges: 1
- Delta: Produced during deep, dreamless sleep (0.5–4 Hz)
- Theta: Produced during light sleep, deep meditation, or when waking up or going to sleep (4–8 Hz)
- Alpha: Produced during calm and relaxed states, when not focusing on anything in particular (8–12 Hz)
- Beta: Produced during periods of focus, concentration and problem solving (12–30 Hz)
- Gamma: Produced during periods of peak focus, insight and expanded consciousness (30–150 Hz)
Our brains don’t merely express these frequencies when we are in these states. These frequencies can alter our brain state.
One way of doing this is to play a slightly different frequency into each ear. Our brainwaves will sync up to the difference between those frequencies. The frequencies used to create this entrainment are called binaural beats.
Put another way: by wearing headphones and listening to specifically constructed audio, you can change your brainwave patterns to switch into different states.
Kind of. It doesn’t work for everyone and the research is still divided on its effectiveness. It’s more of a nudge than a guaranteed result. But if it works for you, as it does for me, you can use these binaural beats to increase your focus or creativity, or for rest and relaxation.
To get started with binaural beats, search your mobile app store or YouTube. On the iPhone, I use an app called Brain Wave, which has presets like Power Nap that drops me into a restful, sleep state for 10 minutes, then wakes me back up at the end.
Beyond Binaural Beats
Binaural beats are not the only game in town when it comes to altering your brain state with audio.
Isochronic tones are a newer technique used to sync your brain to different states that doesn’t require headphones, while the company Brain.fm claims to have patented techniques to use audio to help you sleep, focus and meditate.
Bottom line: specially constructed audio may be able to alter your brainwave patterns, helping you achieve desires states of concentration, creativity and relaxation.
1 This is an oversimplification. The specific ranges and purposes continue to be refined. Beta and gamma waves can be divided into sub-ranges, and it’s not only the frequency that determines brain state, but amplitude, as well as other factors.