Many times, what skeptics see as scientifically invalid, New Agers see as mysterious and benevolent, and conspiracy theorists see as hushed up and dangerous. This can even apply to how headphones are used.
When two different tones are played in each ear, it creates the illusion of a single beat. These are called binaural beats and are touted by some as a way to have a safe, legal high. It is the auditory equivalent of the urban legend that dried banana leaves mimic marijuana.
While binaural beats exist, they do not affect the listeners beyond whatever pleasure they receive from the music. Those who assert it does much more than that base their claims on a misunderstanding of how brain waves function.
Brain waves are patterns of activity repeated several times per second and can be detected by an electroencephalograph. The basic brainwaves are their correlating conditions are: Delta (sleeping), theta (sleepy), alpha (relaxed), beta (alert), and gamma (hyper).
The crucial point, however, is that brain states produce brain waves; brain waves don’t produce brain states. Theta waves may be detected as you are drifting off to sleep watching Sesame Street, but replacing Grover’s ruminations with a gamma wave recording will not snap you back to a heightened state.
And it certainly won’t have the physical and mental benefits attributed to them by a number of proponents. These benefits include dieting, smoking cessation, memory aid, and pain relief. If desiring more of a New Age flavor, we are also promised a higher state of consciousness, third eye awareness, and chakra balancing. Makers of the I-Doser go so far as to claim different binaural beats are the equivalent of taking prescription medication. However, while a person may exhibit certain brain wave patterns while taking prescription medication for heartburn, we cannot create those waves to get the medical benefits. The music will do nothing to inhibit acid production or impact any other condition.
Many proponents cite as proof the experiments of 17th Century Dutch mathematician and scientist Christiaan Huygens. When Huygens placed two pendulum clocks side by side on a wall, he noticed the pendulums eventually became exactly opposite from the other. When one was at the far left of its swing, the other was at the far right. Binaural beat therapy practitioners consider this an example of how systems can become connected through an unexplained energy field.
However, Brian Dunning at Skeptoid explained that this is not what happened with Huygens’ timepieces. When Huygens took one clock off the wall, the effect disappeared. This is because when the pendulum swung, it imparted a tiny, equal, and opposite reaction to the wall. “And with two clocks on the wall,” Dunning wrote, “the system naturally sought the lowest energy level, per the laws of thermodynamics.” Thus, each pendulum swung counter to the other.
Lacking favorable results in double blind studies, proponents fall back on anecdotes. But these rely on the placebo effect and the power of suggestion. As Dunning noted, “If I give you a music track and tell you that it will cure your headache, you’re more likely to report that it cured your headache than you are to say, ‘It didn’t effect my headache, but it made my short-term memory better.’”
While New Agers are finding positive attributes that aren’t there, conspiracy theorists have spotted attempts to control our behavior. Not necessarily through binaural beats, but through the similar extreme low frequency waves. These cover the same range as brain waves, so some theorists believe that Illuminati reptilians or similar critters induced brain waves through HAARP and used them as a mind control device. Curiously, the perpetrators never used this power to convince the theorists of HAARP’s benevolence, or to subliminally suggest they bake them cinnamon rolls.