Updated: Jun 24
Therapeutic Health Benefits of Binaural Beats
Therapeutic Health Benefits of Binaural Beats
Written by: Stefanie Hahn
Integral Health and Yoga Therapy, California Institute for Human Sciences
IH 500: Academic Writing for Human Sciences
Dr. Julie R. Dargis
December 17, 2021
Therapeutic Health Benefits of Binaural Beats
Many health professionals recognize the benefits of sound therapy and are incorporating it into recreational therapy, yoga therapy, and other specialized treatments. Studies of sound therapy involving binaural beats have shown that patients have been able to reduce pain, anxiety, and improve brain function (Garcia-Argibay et al., 2019). The purpose of this research is to learn how binaural beats are created to better understand their effects and benefits. Similar to binaural beats sound therapy, the primitive practice of drumming has been found to improve patients’ awareness of the body, concentration, and reduce anxiousness (Winkelman, 2003). Sound therapy, specifically drumming and binaural beats can be used as an effective treatment to aid in the health of people affected by trauma, addiction, disabilities, pain management, and anxiety.
Processing Binaural Beats in the Brain
The Cerebral Cortex is the outer layer of the largest portion of the brain and controls many major human functions including learning, memory, sensory inputs, muscle movement, vision processing, speech, and the dopamine center (Lee, 2017). The nucleus accumbens is a part of the cerebral cortex and is known as our pleasure and reward center. This manages the release of the dopamine hormone which produces feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. When used to treat anxiety and addiction, binaural beats have been shown to specifically affect these areas of the brain (Lee, 2017). This reinforces the argument presented by Garcia-Argibay et al. (2019) that binaural auditory beats produce sensations in the brainstem and cerebral cortex and balance the brainwave rhythms.
There is growing support for the claim that binaural auditory beats affect cognition and psychophysiological states. Numerous studies have reported that binaural-beat exposure leads to psychophysiological changes. For instance, theta/delta-band frequencies have been used successfully to reduce anxiety levels. (Garcia-Argibay et al., 2019, p. 358)
Brainwaves are electrical activity produced in the brain and are classified into six categories of frequency ranges: Delta (0.5-3.9 Hz), Theta (4-7.9 Hz), Alpha (8-13.9 Hz), Beta (14-30 Hz), Gamma (31-100 Hz), and Epsilon (below 0.5 Hz) (Perales et al., 2019; Weyant, 2021). The frequencies of these brain waves can fluctuate during various changes in mood and emotional states (Perales et al., 2019). As mentioned above, music can be designed to manipulate the brainwaves to tune to a desired state of consciousness.
It is easy to find research on the ways music has been studied to naturally alter states of consciousness. Sound therapy differs from listening to music recreationally. Acoustic stimulation is defined as the “use of sound to elicit a response in the nervous system” (Definitions.net, 2021). Binaural means two ears and the binaural pathway is composed of the superior olivary complex (SOC) and it processes the location of sound sources, including high and low frequencies (Johnson, 1997). Binaural beats are one form of acoustic stimulation currently being used as a treatment modality in healthcare. “Binaural auditory beats are a perceptual phenomenon that occurs when presenting separately to each ear two tones that slightly differ in their frequency.” (Garcia-Argibay et al., 2019, p. 357). In a recent study using binaural beats, researchers Perales et al. (2019) describe the use of manipulating frequencies to achieve a specific brainwave state.
While listening to binaural beats, the brain will try to adjust its own brainwave to the frequency of the external stimuli. So, with this hypothesis in mind, it is relatively easy to be induced to a desired state. If we want to be induced to a relaxed state, we simply need a binaural tone with a frequency that matches the alpha brainwaves (8-12 Hz) or delta (0.5-3 Hz). (Perales et al., 2019, p. 32872)
Therapists and other professionals that hold an understanding of brainwaves and their corresponding frequencies can use sound therapy to promote and enhance specific sensations and states of consciousness with their clients. See figure 1, Frequency Chart detailing the six brainwave frequencies and the state of consciousness it is associated with.
Creating Binaural Beats
Specialized equipment is needed to record in stereo and present the various and differing beats effectively in each ear, and the two different frequencies should be no more than 35 Hz difference (Perales et al., 2019). An example of this is when a tone of 3 Hz is presented in the left ear, the frequency played in the right ear should be 38 Hz or less. Garcia-Argibay et al., 2019, pulled research articles on therapeutic studies of binaural beats and hypothesized that alpha, beta, gamma, and theta “binaural-beat exposure affected the performance in memory tasks, and that the direction of this effect depended on the frequency used, being positive for the alpha, beta and gamma frequencies, and negative for the theta frequency” (Garcia-Argibay et al., 2019, p. 367). While binaural beats may often have healing and restorative benefits, when used without proper education, adverse effects may arise.
Although many researchers chose varying lengths of time to expose the participants to the binaural beats, it is commonly believed that a minimum length of time needed for them to start experiencing the benefits in all areas of the brain typically ranges from 5-10 minutes (Beauchene et al., 2016; Garcia-Argibay et al., 2019). Garcia-Argibay et al. (2019) further explored the effects of the binaural beats alone compared to when added to music. “The reduced effectiveness observed with binaural beats embedded in music might be due to some interference between the frequencies present in the music and the binaural beat, as musical rhythms” (Garcia-Argibay et al., 2019, p. 368). Furthermore, their study found that when binaural beats were layered on top of each other it yielded the highest positive improvements and results.
Application of Sound Therapy
Music, especially drumming, can create a pleasant feeling which helps people reconnect with themselves. Drumming is another method of auditory stimulation being used as a complementary therapy in a variety of settings. Researchers and practitioners are using drumming to help participants heal from trauma, addiction, as well as improve childhood development, socialization, and cognition (Winkelman, 2003). There have been numerous studies conducted on how drumming can be beneficial on many levels. Physiological benefits of drumming can include relaxation, affecting the theta and alpha ranges of the brain, and achieving homeostasis in the body. According to Winkelman (2003), the mental health benefits of drumming promote self-regulation, socialization, access to unconscious information as well as reduce tension, anxiety, and phobias. Drumming can be a relatively low-cost therapy with a long tradition of aiding in healing and moving through health-related issues.
Ailments Treated with Sound Therapy
Sound therapy and movement, including dance, promote mental and physical strength. When movement is combined with breath-work an individual is able to alter their state of consciousness. “Drumming can produce an altered state of consciousness and an emotional release, a rush from the vibrations of the drumming, providing physical stimulation” (Winkelman, 2003, p. 648). Further research and the willingness to explore integral health services may be able to bring sound therapy practices to clinical settings.
Trauma and Addiction Recovery
A drumming study was conducted at the Phoenix Shanti Group program for the treatment of patients addicted to crack cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, and HIV-positive. In this study, researchers were “inducing relaxation and natural altered states of consciousness that substitute for drug induced highs” (Winkelman, 2003, p. 649). They explained the benefits of drumming to the participants and encouraged consistent attendance for optimal results. In addition to the drumming exercise, they also encouraged the therapeutic practice of journaling what they experienced during the session for integration (Winkelman, 2003). Winkleman, (2003) also notes, the importance of specific programs for drug recovery to limit and avoid participants engaging in other community drum activities that could possibly promote drug use. Happiness and sobriety can be maintained with a steady and consistent practice of sound therapy along with the willingness to move past trauma by integration, journaling, and making healthier choices.
Mikenas (2003) contributed to the research in the field of drumming as therapy through his work with a group home for girls and after-school programs to rebuild emotional health and violence recovery. Minkenas methods involve a variety of drumming exercises, warm-ups, and switching hands which encourages the use of the non-dominant hand. “The drums, sounds, rhythms and energy elicit emotional issues and may work as an ‘eraser’ to remove effects of trauma” (Winkelman, 2003, p. 648). “Drumming Out Drugs” was another successful program led by Daniel Smith, presented as “alternative and complementary therapy for addiction” (Winkelman, 2003, p. 648). Similar to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Smith’s program emphasizes a rebirthing or spiritual awakening. “Smith finds that yoga activities produce mental-physical bridging and the integration clients need to detoxify their bodies” (Winkelman, 2003, p. 649). The research presented by Daniel Smith promotes the belief that drumming can naturally alter states of consciousness in replace of mind-altering substances (Winkelman, 2003). Addiction can lead “to a selfishness or egocentricism that can be alleviated through drumming, enhancing connection within the self, others and a higher power. Integration of mind, body, spirit to leave behind addictions and embrace recovery” (Winkelman, 2003, p. 648). Similarly, integral health, alternative treatments, and yoga therapy also often incorporate a mind, body, spirit approach to healing.
One of the steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is a form of “yoga”, the form of yoga known as meditation because they both embrace a desire to seek a deep connection to a higher power (Winkelman, 2003). Another set of research studies found that many adolescents in substance abuse recovery were angry and shut down but after drumming they became alive and expressive (Winkelman, 2003). In addition to drumming, common themes mentioned in Winkelman’s research parallel prominent addiction recovery practices involving forgiveness, acceptance, surrender, addressing past trauma, and focusing on embracing a better self.
Children and the Developing Brain
There has been a significant increase in the number of children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the last two decades (Litchke et al., 2021). Research presented by Litchke et al., (2021) explains how currently, as of 2018, one in 59 children has ASD compared to one in 166 found in 2004. The importance of incorporating effective practices into schools and programs to reduce anxiety, regulate emotions, and promote positive social engagement within these populations is higher now more than ever. Yoga and drumming are two activities that reduce stress and disruptive behaviors while increasing focus, eye contact, and bodily awareness. Litchke et al., (2021) studied the implementation of either drumming, yoga, or a control group of basic recess within a preschool setting on children 3 and 4 years old on the Autism Spectrum. The drumming and yoga groups presented notable improvements in positive emotions, behaviors, and overall mood after the activity. Additionally, the drummers had even greater relationship building than the other two groups (Litchke et al., 2021). The study concluded that participation in therapeutic drumming most commonly raises the levels of empathy, self-regulation, positive emotions, and verbalization in children with ASD.
Modern technologies have presented researchers and medical professionals with opportunities and advancements in medicine that can be made by blending ancient practices of drumming and healing sounds with cutting-edge innovations. Virtual Reality (VR) commonly known for its role in video games is also making an impact in the fields of medicine, psychology, and rehabilitation. A study from 2019, used a VR system combined with binaural beats to observe if the user’s mood and brainwave frequencies could be affected by this technology (Perales et al., 2019). The main focus areas observed among participants were on pain management and ADHD, using the Oculus Rift and an Android application called “PainDroid”, which assists doctors and therapists by assessing pain and sending collected data back to them (Perales et al., 2019). The VR system test provided 5 minutes of listening to each beat for a total of 4 beats. With added resting periods, the exercise lasted 28 minutes. Findings indicated “that the end-users felt that they were relaxed or in meditation state (the purpose of those binaural beats), but they could not hit the market with the right binaural beat mode” (Perales et al., 2019, p. 32879). Pereles et al. (2019) conducted a second study incorporating the use of VR on children ages seven to 16 years old, with arthritic pain. The participants were exposed to seven-minute sessions of binaural beats in each of the three separate sessions, the relaxed session involved VR and binaural beats and on average the patient pain reduction rate was 20%.
Beauchene et al. (2016) explained how the prefrontal cortex of the brain manages working memory which involves reasoning, goal adherence, and the ability to understand and learn information. They further outlined how binaural beats can induce synchronization in the brain, allowing it to process information, cognition, and working memory by testing 5 Hz, 10 Hz, and 15 Hz frequencies against that of classical music and singular tones (Beauchene et al., 2016). “We found that listening to 15 Hz binaural beats during a visuospatial working memory task not only increased the response accuracy, but also modified the strengths of the cortical networks during the task” (Beauchene et al., 2016, p. 1). This supports the claim that Theta (4 Hz-7.9 Hz) and Gamma (31 Hz +) are associated with memory tasks and affect prefrontal, temporal, and sensory processing (Beauchene et al., 2016; Perales et al., 2019).
Gaps in Research
Previous research on the topic of binaural beats and sound therapy may be limited due to healthcare staff resistance and failure to promote the benefits of alternative therapies to the participants (Winkelman, 2003).
“This lack of voluntary participation in supplemental activities suggests that successful introduction of drumming activities in rehabilitation requires that they be incorporated into the mainstream of the program and clients' interest in the program will strongly be affected by the attitudes expressed by counselors” (Winkelman, 2003, p. 650).
Another gap in research is on the study of how binaural beats affect the psychophysiological level and there is a need for “larger sample size studies to ensure that the observed effectiveness can be replicated and applied to other areas such as implicit and episodic memory” (Garcia-Argibay et al., 2019, p. 369). Recreational and other therapists have the responsibility to work with teachers, the individualized education planning (IEP) team, and “to foster connections between academic and social-emotional skills to meet the needs of students with ASD and other diagnosis” (Litchke et al., 2021, p. 73). Educating health care providers, caretakers, and patients on the benefits of sound therapy and other integral health modalities is the key to advancing the implementation into mainstream medical treatment.
Sound is a powerful tool to aid in the reduction of symptoms related to numerous health issues including trauma, anxiety, addiction, disabilities, and pain management. Therapeutic sound treatment can be as basic as a simple drum or exercise ball and sticks or as advanced as virtual reality with integrated applications for biofeedback communicated back to healthcare professionals. Research findings on the topic of acoustic stimulation including drumming and binaural beats have shown positive results among participants and can be used as an effective treatment modality in integral health, yoga therapy, and alternative treatment therapies.
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