When I study on the train I like to listen to nature sounds, subtle white noise, or certain binaural beat tracks to filter the disruptive sounds of my fellow commuters and bring more focus to my efforts. For the most part, I find it can help. But do a search for binaural beats and you find a very confusing array of claims and offerings that are red flags for any critical thinker.

Today you will find binaural beats for changing eye color, reducing hair loss, and losing weight right alongside the ones claiming to reduce anger or improve memory retention. Not surprisingly there is a rather big business around selling these tracks or increasing traffic (and thus ad revenue) to YouTube videos. And like with anything else one finds related to self-improvement and self-growth subjects, because much of this material is being presented by the same people selling it, the need for critical thinking is all the more important.

So, then, what are binaural beats truly useful for, and why – knowing the hype – do I still sometimes use them when I study?

First, the facts… science is still unsure just how much binaural beats impact the brain but there have been promising studies done related to pain reduction and relaxation. However, one can also find similar claims for music. Some music is well suited for relaxation, meditation, and study. Just as music can sway emotions, so too, then perhaps, some binaural beats. What is pretty clear is the industry which has developed to sell binaural beats have at the very least exaggerated the benefits, and at worse downright made up pseudoscience and pseudo-metaphysics to sell these tracts for basically anything they choose, be it eye color to spiritual experiences. Beware the hype.

For a detailed look at what binaural beats are and the actual science around it, check out this article.

Second, my experiences… When I first found these beats I researched a bit to find which frequencies had at least some scientific backing and tried some out. Some of these sounds were annoying or in some way distracting, while others seemed useful in my meditation or study when I needed sounds to mask background noise. The first week or so there seemed to be some benefits noticed, but after a few weeks, I would equate the benefits the same as for nature sounds and white noise. As to whether my mind adapted or the initial increased benefits were due to the novelty of it I can’t say, but they remain one of my options when I need to block out distractions and get focused since sometimes I prefer one over the other.

Since the useful frequency ranges vary from person to person and with age you would probably need to experiment as I did to find sounds that feel right. I see no need to spend money on these as there are plenty for free on the internet. I’d rather spend money on a great quality nature soundtrack.

So all in all, binaural beats can be of some use, when approached mindfully, but they do not live up to the hype. We all want that easy way out – the pill or hack that will get us results faster. Pick any topic that requires effort and time and you will find people making some decent money offering purported magic pills or solutions to get you there faster and with less effort. Buyer beware.  As the saying goes, if it sounds too good to be true…