Brainwave entrainment is a relatively new phenomenon that has been sweeping the internet. Nowhere has it made its mark more though than on YouTube where lots of young kids can be seen claiming to be having psychedelic experiences or to be high. Type in ‘Binaural Beats’ into YouTube and you will quickly see this going on. Other people too though are using them, for learning, for meditation and for relaxation. They appeal to all walks of life and they have seemingly an endless number of effects. So just precisely what is brainwave entrainment and can it work?
The idea behind brainwave entrainment is fairly simple. Here it is believed that you can actually a listener’s brainwaves by playing them a certain pitch. More specifically the hope is that by playing two separate frequencies in each ear, you can thereby entrain the individual’s brainwaves to rest specifically between the two of them. This is done using sound files that are called ‘binaural beats’ and which you play through headphones with one frequency in each ear. The actual sounds themselves sound like a screeching noise or white noise that might recall a badly tuned radio with a kind of pulsating rhythm behind the sound.
Companies like iDoser have then taken this idea and run with it, resulting in binaural beats being packaged for many different uses. What happens here is that the company finds out what the brainwaves are doing during certain experiences – during REM sleep for example, during meditation, or during drug use, and then aim to recreate these brainwaves in the individual listening to the binaural beats. Thus this should result in the individual having the same brainwave patterns as they would in a range of other states. And there are no shortage of different products out there either, there are binaural beats to create the effects of marijuana, LSD, painkillers, alcohol, nicotine, meditation, different moods, exercise, sleep, dreams and more. At the same time there are iDosers that promise to help increase your memory, your capacity for learning, your concentration, your mental dexterity, your intelligence, your desire to quit smoking or drinking… There’s even an iDoser that attempts to be able to induce, or at least mimic orgasm – something that would be pretty hard for a man to fake.
Of course a lot of this has met with controversy as it is seen to glorify drug use and get children ‘interested’ in the idea of doing drugs. Of course the counter argument is that it prevents a ‘safe’ alternative. However the real question is, do they work? And of course if you are using entrainment for meditation, whether or not it is moral is really something of a moot point.
The answer to that latter question is of course more complicated than a simple yes or no. Scientific studies have demonstrated the ability for binaural beats to change brainwaves, but these are under controlled conditions and using scientific algorithms. Whether it is possible to mimic this effect with a file that was made by someone in their back room (a lot of binaural beats are edited by the community rather than the companies themselves) and played through regular headphones is somewhat doubtful. The bigger problem facing iDosers however, is that to get many of the effects described requires a lot more than just a change in brainwaves. Sleeping tablets for instance release serotonin re-uptake inhibitors resulting in more serotonin in the brain, and they trigger the release of melatonin. This is what causes their most powerful effects – and simply changing your brainwaves is unlikely to have this effect. The same goes double for class A drugs which have powerful chemical reactions, and certainly for orgasms for which there is more than a slight physical element involved (though the idea does make you think of that scene in Demolition Man).
However for meditation there might be some more truth in it, meditation after all being the pursuit of a relaxed brain state. Though it is also fair to say that it requires a little more than just relaxation too, and part of the usefulness of meditation is in learning to get to that point on your own so that you can use it in day to day life, and so that you can better control your own mental state. It is also about being able to let individual brain areas shut down in your mind which again isn’t going to happen with brainwave entrainment or certainly not as a result of it. And so in conclusion, binaural beats and entrainment might have some effect on your meditation and would be intriguing to try once if it were free. However it really does not go much farther than that.