When I was first introduced to the fascinating field of consciousness research back in 1988, phrases like binaural beats and brainwave entrainment had not yet become part of the popular lexicon. The Monroe Institute (where I learned my craft) was the only organization involved in clinical research and reverse engineering EEG data into proprietary binaural beat matrices to effect states of consciousness. They have done this for over 50 years and in my opinion, they remain the standard bearer.
However, in the past ten years many myths about binaural beat technology have emerged on the internet. In this series of articles, I will share with you as much accurate information as I can about binaural beats. How they work and what they can truly help you accomplish.
Understanding brainwaves and consciousness correlations.
Like all electrical impulses, brainwaves are measured in cycles per second or Hertz. Human brainwaves are measured between .5 cycles per second to 40 hertz, depending on the measuring system. Brainwaves are quantified into regions labeled beta, alpha, theta and delta. These regions reflect the brainwave activity from fastest to slowest respectively.
Brainwave regions have also been correlated to states of consciousness and the stages of sleep 1 thru 4. For instance, the predominance of Beta brainwaves indicates that the person being measured is awake or conscious, while a predominance of Delta brainwaves tells us that the person is in stage 4 sleep.
These two examples are the extremes of the spectrum of consciousness and are binary. You are either conscious or you are not. A person in stages two and three of sleep, show a predominance of Alpha and Theta brainwaves respectively, and are considered in the mid band of the spectrum. It is in between the binary (on /off) extremes that the brainwave / consciousness correlates get really interesting. Within the mid band spectrum are numerous possible consciousness anomalies referred to as altered states of consciousness.
For instance, it has been well documented that the predominance of alpha brainwaves, is often seen in someone who is involved in a sort of imaginative meditation state. The conscious experience of the person being measured might be a sense of relaxed mind and body. Their brainwaves reflect this slower movement in their thinking process. They are not yet asleep, but they are less focused in their awareness of external stimuli. As a subjects body and mind relax more and more, they begin to show a predominance in the theta brainwave region. Their inner experience (or thoughts) become less coherent and they become even less aware of external stimuli as they continue to move toward deep sleep.
Understanding the difference between consciousness and brainwaves.
The binary concept of consciousness is in fact a bit misleading. In truth, human beings have the unique ability to actually be both somewhat awake and asleep at the same time. Consciousness is in fact a mystery in many respects and brainwaves can only reveal so much about the experience one is having.
However, brainwave activity can reveal quite a lot about the potential experiences one might be having based on what is known about sleep and the subconscious mind. It is this accurate information that my mentor Bob Monroe (founder of The Monroe Institute) used when developing his proprietary binaural beat matrices, which he dubbed Hemi-Sync.
Bob’s theorized that in understanding EEG readings of people having unique experiences in altered states of consciousness (lets’ call these subjects adepts), one could reverse engineer the readings and create sounds (binaural beat matrices) to induce similar brainwaves and thus similar experiences in a novice. For the most part, he was absolutely right. But there are many limitations to this theory which appear to be greatly ignored by many organizations who claim to induce specific experiences in consciousness through the use of binaural beats.
Understanding how binaural beats work to entrain brainwaves.
Bob Monroe’s method of brainwave entrainment through using binaural beats, was a monumental achievement which is often times ignored by the many “experts” involved in internet marketing of binaural beat technology. Although his entrainment theory is often quoted by these same experts and is readily available in easily digestible language, I shall reiterate it here in case you know nothing of the matter.
Entrainment is a word used to describe the power of one thing to affect another through some form of energy. Bob discovered it was possible to entrain brainwaves through introducing sine waves slightly de-tuned and delivered through headphones in a stereo spectrum. Sine waves were used because they are mathematically pure and free of harmonic overtones which might produce artifacts.
Bob knew from the EEG research of Gerald Oster, that the brain did indeed register a response to auditory stimuli. Bob’s mission was to find a way to invoke a predictable and repeatable brainwave response pattern through the use of sound. This presented a problem in that brainwaves fell well below the threshold of human hearing. Bob’s answer to this problem was to employ the binaural beat phenomenon.
The binaural beat phenomenon was discovered by a man named Wilhem Dove in the late 1800’s and in simple terms, it is the means by which human beings can locate the source of incoming sound stimulus. This phenomenon involves phase cancellation which allows us to tell approximately how far away we are from a sounds origin. Bob Monroe used these principles and de-tuned the sine waves to produce beat frequencies which would fall into the range of natural brainwave frequencies. It was a truly inspired idea and works very well for reason far beyond the obvious.
For instance, let’s say we wish to entrain the subjects brain to produce a theta predominance. The reason we might want to do this is to bring the listener into a deep state of physical and mental relaxation. We know the theta region falls in between 4hz and 8 hz which is below our ability to hear. So the question became, how can we entrain the brain to sounds we cannot hear? The answer lies in the binaural beat phenomenon.
When two sounds of an exact frequency, shape and phase collide in space, they tend to cancel each other out. It is a process called phase cancellation. Bob made use of this phenomenon and achieved an exact differential that falls into the target region, in this case theta. The differential is experienced by the listener as a beat which is the product of phase cancellation. In simple terms, if one sound (say 500hz) is presented into the left ear and another (say 504 hz) is presented into the right ear, the resulting differential will be 4hz. When the brain hears both the tones and the beat, a magical thing begins to happen. The brain begins to entrain to the beat frequency.
Remember that the predominance of theta brainwaves is indicative of someone in a deep meditative state. Therefore, the experience of the listener is equivalent to someone who has mastered the art of meditation and is versed in exploring altered states of consciousness!
I am well aware that this rendition of brainwave entrainment is a reiteration of what has become a popular way of speaking about binaural beat technology. I am equally aware that there is far more to entraining brainwaves and effecting states consciousness. As I said earlier, it is my hope to educated you about the truth of binaural beat techology. In order to do this properly I have to introduce a few things into your thinking.
The first thing I want you to understand is that, there is a science behind this work. The second thing I want you to know is that the creator of this work is a man for whom I and thousands of other have a great deal of respect for; my friend and mentor Robert A Monroe. Perhaps the most important take away from this first article, is this:
Although brainwaves and consciousness have certain correlations, the notion that certain brainwave patterns are indicative of specific experiences, is nothing short of utter nonsense. Their are no magic binaural beat matrix that can give someone an orgasm or produce an out of body experience. Experience of any sort, is a function of consciousness and therefore part of a vast and enigmatic mechanism. Brainwaves are indicative of states of consciousness not necessarily personal experiences.
Having said that, I also would like you to know that binaural beats can be used in the invocation of potential experiences. But this will have to be explained in later parts of the series. If you would like more food for thought regarding the phenomenon of consciousness, feel free to browse my blog entitled “What is consciousness?”.