Are Binaural Beats The Brain Hack We’ve All Been Waiting For?

A few simple sounds show promise to boost sleep, focus, and brain function.

A man wearing headphones while reclining, listening to binaural beats.

What if you could just put on your headphones and boost your brain, calm your nerves, and increase your focus with just a few odd tones? It’s a hack that sounds like something out of science fiction but is actually starting to gain traction among psychotherapists and other experts thanks to the growing evidence from some small studies showing that you can hack your brain with binaural beats.

What are binaural beats? These sounds are the result when you play a different frequency — one slightly higher-pitched and one lower-pitched — into each ear, usually via headphones. The brain creates a “third frequency,” an auditory illusion known as a “binaural beat.” You hear it even though it’s not actually being piped into your ears and it’s thought to promote relaxation, reduce anxiety, and enhance cognitive functioning.

Although listening to binaural beats can make it easier for some people to meditate, there is absolutely no need to sit still and close your eyes to reap the benefits. “This can help parents to stay focused and be more mindful throughout the day, even during busy times,” says Amira Martin, a psychotherapist and an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of Social Work. In other words, you might be able to achieve a sense of flow or Zen without any awkward chanting or soul-searching that potentially put you off before.

Although the scientific community has yet to reach the same level of enthusiasm about binaural beats as they have about meditation, some emerging evidence suggests that higher frequency binaural beats can help increase a person’s focus. Interestingly, another study found that higher frequency beats can boost cognitive performance, but only in people with low “spontaneous eye-blink rates,” which is an indicator of lower dopamine levels. Likewise, listening to sound frequencies with an embedded binaural beat appeared to reduce anxiety among patients at the emergency department.

“The effectiveness of binaural beats can vary widely between individuals, depending on factors such as age, hearing ability, and brainwave patterns,” says psychiatrist Joann Mundin, M.D. But unlike other wellness hacks that come with a high upcharge, beat-curious individuals have a number of free options to choose from on YouTube.

Although it costs nothing to see if binaural beats work for you, there are risks to consider before trying them, Mundin warns. “Binaural beats may not be safe for individuals with certain medical conditions,” such as epilepsy or other neurological conditions that could make a person more prone to seizures.

For optimal results, Mundin and Martin suggest listening with two fully functional earbuds — so if your kid hid one of them, you’re going to have to find it first. Listening to binaural beats out loud simply won’t have the same effects. Once you have two working headphones and determine your desired results, whether that’s relaxing and going to sleep or energizing yourself to focus on a task, it’s a matter of picking your beats.

Binaural beats at a higher frequency of around 40 Hertz have been linked with improvements in ability to learn, whereas lower beta frequencies between 14 and 30 Hertz are thought to be good for problem-solving, alertness, and memory. Anything below 13 Hertz is where the effects become more relaxing and begin to feel closer to meditation. And if that’s what you’re going for, Martin recommends listening to them when you’re wind downing before bed.

Higher frequency waves can also be helpful during periods of high stress. “This can be particularly beneficial for dads who may be juggling multiple responsibilities,” Martin says.

And yet, one of those responsibilities you might not want to juggle with binaural beats is child-rearing. Not only would having headphones on make you a less present parent (“Not now, Daddy is listening to his beta frequencies!”), but the low volume you would have to listen to the beats at to be able to parent would make them less effective.

A couple of new sound frequencies won’t solve all of your problems, but if they take some of the edge off your stress or help you problem-solve at work, that’s great too. That way you can relax and focus on what really matters — taking care of yourself, being there for your family, and making sure your kid never steals your airpods again.