Insomnia can be an aggravating and stressful condition that leads to restless nights and exhausted mornings. Numerous methods exist for treating insomnia, from folk remedies to pharmaceuticals.
A good middle ground between old wives tales and chemical dependence are techniques like binaural beats—methods that don’t require taking pills but still have sound basis in biology.
Binaural beats can help manage insomnia, induce sleep, and help you get proper rest.
What Is a Binaural Beat?
Binaural beats are a form of “apparent sound” that were first discovered in 1839. They result from how the brain processes sound waves and specifically how it handles differences that are too subtle to be detected normally.
Sound waves have frequencies that are measured in hertz (Hz) that affects how well we can hear them. Our ears regularly receive numerous sound waves with varying frequencies throughout the day, but these are normally from the same source. If each ear ends up hearing a different tone, such as from using stereo headphones, the noise is processed depending on the difference in hertz. If the difference is small enough (usually 10 Hz or lower) the brain perceives the frequency as being that difference. For instance, if a 210 Hz goes into one ear and a 214 Hz goes into the other, your brain will perceive a 4 Hz frequency.
This phenomenon is important for treating insomnia for three primary reasons:
- Brainwaves tend to match the binaural beat frequency if other stimuli are unavailable.
- Binaural beats can create frequencies normally associated with sleep.
- These frequencies, on their own, are not normally audible.
This Is Your Brain
Brainwaves naturally enter different frequencies of activity throughout the day. Each frequency is associated with alternate periods of alertness or activity.
- Delta state: A 1-4 Hz state associated with deep sleep. During this state you have no awareness of your body and don’t normally dream.
- Theta state: A 4-8 Hz range normally called the “dream state”. Mid theta waves are also associated with deep meditation.
- Alpha state: An 8-14 Hz range found when awake, but relaxed.
- Beta state: A 14-40 Hz range that we enter when we are awake and focused or alert.
- Gamma state: Any range higher than 40 Hz. The gamma state normally occurs during periods of high mental activity, stress, problem solving, or fear.
This Is Your Brain on Beats
Insomnia is when you have trouble entering the theta or delta state, preventing your mind from resting and all the associated unpleasantness of not being able to rest. As mentioned above, it is not normally possible to perceive the lowest frequencies. Your speakers could be sounding a 2 Hz tone for hours without inducing sleep. Binaural beats are a way to get around this problem. They are, more or less, a way to sneak lower frequency tones into your brain.
Some advocates of binaural beats believe that the stimulation can help people with memorization, stop smoking, ease depression, or aid in higher thinking. These claims are interesting, but there has yet to be any formal scientific evaluation of whether they are true. Instead, it is best to focus on the effects that have actually been observed: namely that binaural beats can influence brainwave frequency.
Using Binaural Beats
Treating your insomnia with binaural beats, at the most basic level, involves putting on stereo headphones and listening to special music. A fuller explanation reveals a few extra requirements.
First, the sounds need to be a pure tone. It needs to have a steady frequency, phase, and amplitude. This is an elaborate way of saying the sound has to be consistent and can’t waver, meaning it isn’t likely to be found in most forms of typical music.
Second, you can’t have other distractions. No amount of binaural beats is going to put you to sleep if you are reading a book, watching TV, doing taxes in your head, or any other form of active thinking or stimulation. Possible methods to help focus your brain on the beats include staring at a candle or point on the ceiling or closing your eyes. The process will be easier the more you do it and your brain gets used to the binaural beats.
Stages of Binaural Beats
The aim of using binaural beats to manage insomnia and help yourself sleep is to make the brain follow along with a set of frequencies that match natural sleep patterns. There are many different forms of binaural beats available and each works slightly different, but they all follow this basic principle. With that in mind, a few commonalities can be found in how they operate.
Binaural beats will begin with the induction state. This uses beats to bring you into the 8-14 Hz alpha range to relax and subdue your brain. The duration of this period, and the ones that follow, will depend on the type of binaural beat you use but should be in the 10-15 minute range. Afterwards, the beat will start inducing frequencies in the 4-8 Hz theta range. This is the lighter, dreaming stage where you first begin to fall asleep. Next, the binaural beat moves into the 1-4 Hz delta range to induce deep sleep that your body needs for full restfulness.
What happens after will once again depend on the type of beat you use. Some binaural beats would stop here, letting you enjoy the full sleep. Others are meant for more short-term meditations or naps and will eventually begin to increase the frequency back to wakefulness.
Binaural beats can be used in conjunction with other sleep remedies to help manage your insomnia. This includes things like morning workouts, warm milk, or yoga. The only method that binaural beats aren’t suited for would be calming music, since your ears are obviously occupied elsewhere.