The internet is awash in suggestions for how to improve focus and concentration and for good reason. Focus and concentration difficulties are on the rise related to increases in stress as this 2020 study in the U.S. points out. But I really have to ask you, even with detailed suggestions from places like Harvard, who among us is making any real progress? Who feels like they have been able to improve focus and concentration or at least maintain a healthy level? I (biasedly) think those of us that meditate or practice yoga or tai chi have an advantage. But, are you able to carry that oh-so-good feeling throughout the day? While technology might be in-part responsible for problems focusing, it also offers a solution in the form of brainwave entrainment.
Brainwave entrainment is the process of listening to competing frequencies that causes the brain to create a new frequency by combining the two. It improves the ability to focus and concentrate by removing the stimulus, pattern, or habit that limits attention, or adding activities or habits to extend the period of focus and concentration. On average, participants in studies were successful by combining independent activities designed to improve focus with improved habits, such as using brainwave entrainment, during the activity that wanted to concentrate on.
The benefits of brainwave entrainment are amazing. Yet, the number of people who try it out are low because they have never heard of it or are skeptical about the results. Brainwave entrainment has the ability to reduce the learning curve and allow anyone to quickly access the power of meditation or improve what they are doing at work. I am going to share the research I did to give it a try and how I have benefited from it.
How does brainwave entrainment work?
Brainwave entrainment uses an external stimulus such as sound or light to cause brainwave frequencies to correspond with an intended brain-state for the purpose of inducing sleep or a deep meditative state. It is based on research showing that the human brain has a tendency to move towards a dominant frequency.
Is brainwave entrainment scientifically proven?
For sound localization, the human auditory system analyses time differences between both ears. Typically, when different frequencies are presented to each ear, the brain provides directional information. When the sounds are low in frequency and continual, an integration of the two signals takes place, producing the sensation of a third “beat.”
Evidence suggests that the auditory signals are generated in the brainstem’s superior olivary nucleus (Oster, 1973) or the inferior colliculus (Smith, Marsh, & Brown, 1975). The goal of binaural technology is to have the new beat match a desired brain wave state.
A person’s dominant frequency determines one’s current state. Stress and lack of sleep contribute to higher frequency ranges. These higher frequency ranges are necessary in life but if we don’t get a break then sickness and injury result.
|Frequency range||Name||Usually associated with:|
|> 40 Hz||Gamma waves||Higher mental activity, including perception, problem solving, fear, and consciousness|
|13–39 Hz||Beta waves||Active, busy or anxious thinking and active concentration, arousal, cognition, and or paranoia|
|7–13 Hz||Alpha waves||Relaxation (while awake), pre-sleep and pre-wake drowsiness, REM sleep, Dreams|
|8–12 Hz||Mu waves||Mu rhythm, Sensorimotor rhythm|
|4–7 Hz||Theta waves||Deep meditation/relaxation, NREM sleep|
|< 4 Hz||Delta waves||Deep dreamless sleep, loss of body awareness|
Being a researcher myself I want to be clear about the findings of brainwave entrainment research because the research itself is very straight forward while others’ interpretation of the research might be a bit misleading. Here’s how I interpret brainwave entrainment studies:
- The brain can be measured to hum along at a certain frequency.
- Specific frequencies have been associated with specific activities (e.g. meditation), specific states (e.g. sleep), and specific participant reports (e.g. anxious).
- These specific frequencies can be produced in the brain through the use of sound, visual cues, or tactile cues (brainwave entrainment).
- The belief* is that by manually stimulating a brain’s frequency to match a desired state (theta waves/deep meditation), we get the benefit of that beneficial state.
*While the first three statements are positively true, the only way to measure the outcome of brainwave entrainment is through participant description and report. So when trying to find out if brainwave entrainment is scientifically proven, the answer is yes but it is a mixture of standardized assessments and criterion-referenced (e.g questionnaires) to get us the results.
From a scientific standpoint this gets difficult because there are questions about placebo effect and reporter error that makes data dicey. This is not a big problem from a user standpoint. We just need to know that 1) enough science was done on the front end (there was), that enough people reported similar benefits (there are tons), and 3) we need to try it out to see if our experience matches theirs. This is really easy in the case of brainwave entrainment because it is easy, safe, and cheap to give it a shot. So let’s talk about the history and benefits of brainwave entrainment and how you can use it to increase or restore your focus and concentration.
Quick Neat History on Brainwave Entrainment Research
Brainwave entrainment technology is the result of three principle researchers building on each other’s findings. Heinrich Wilhelm Dove was a Prussian researcher primarily interested in the relationship between energy such as sound and magnetism and the earth. He discovered binaural beats in 1839 and “produced a unique perception of interfering beats.”
In 1973, Gerald Oster published the collected studies to date on auditory brainstem response, studied animals ability to locate to sound, and discovered that Parkinson’s patients could not create an independent tone when hearing binaural beats. This set the stage for binaural beats to become the subject of cognitive and neurological research.
Robert Monroe, et. al., of the now famous Monroe Institute in Virginia began using auditory soundtracks to facilitate exploration and replication of specific altered states of consciousness. Their research has included an estimated 20,000 participants and has advanced the specificity between auditory tones and cognitive response.
Enter stage left – the Internet and digital media and now we don’t have to travel to Virginia to get the same benefits.
What are the benefits of brainwave entrainment?
Google that question I dare you. Wow. There are an incredible number of claims about brainwave entrainment benefits that simply aren’t accurate. This is heartbreaking to me because I benefit greatly from using binaural sounds and know that others would too but unsubstantiated claims makes all of us skeptical. Many, many claims have been made about the benefits of brainwave entrainment. Three important ones have been substantiated.
- Enhanced meditation practice using brainwave entrainment:
- Specifically: Further movement along the spectrum from a negative state and erratic thinking toward focus and a state of bliss.
- Why: Meditation states are quantifiable through brain imagery. Deeper meditation reaches Alpha and Theta states which is akin to happier and healthier awareness.
- Increased cognitive abilities from use of brainwave entrainment:
- Specifically: Increased focus, concentration, problem-solving, and creative abilities.
- Why: Binaural sounds create a synchronicity between two hemispheres enabling you to think more holistically.
- Reduction in stress from use of brainwave entrainment:
- Specifically: Cut down on mental chatter and align yourself with positive thought.
- Why: Alignment with cognitive frequencies that promote a calm nervous system.
Is brainwave entrainment safe?
No side effects have been reported from the use of brainwave entrainment. Basically, any measured change to a brain’s frequency that is enhanced artificially (music/touch/imagery) stops after the stimuli is removed. Most producers of the technology warn against the use of brainwave entrainment by children under age 18, people with seizure disorders, and pregnant women. Studies have not been conducted on these populations to date. Additionally, (and this goes without saying) it is suggested that you do not drive while listening to brainwave entrainment due to the relaxing effect.
How I Use Brainwave Entrainment for Focus and Concentration
I am an avid user of sounds to enhance my meditation, qi gong, tai chi, and now even my work. Despite teaching tai chi this is largely something I have kept to myself because it doesn’t fall into the typical curriculum of any of the arts. But then I began having students who were working diligently and progressing ask me how they can advance or experience what I was telling them was down the road if they kept practicing. I also was asked at work how I am able to write reports and produce content at a continual, steady rate. The answer was the same: audio from brainwave entrainment.
Brainwave Entrainment and Meditation
This is where I think everyone should start. I know that most people begin by listening to binaural audio files while doing something else but it is really a profound experience to be meditating and feel like you are falling asleep but you are sitting there awake. I have even found differences between using brainwave entrainment to meditate in the morning and afternoon. In the morning when I finish, I have a really clear sense of what I need to do that day, remember things I forgot to do, or have really good new ideas. In the afternoon, it is like I just took a nap and my 3-5 work is more refreshed.
Secondly, most of us learn about meditation but don’t know what the heck we are doing for the first few years IF we actually hang with it that long. Brainwave entrainment gives us an amazing meditation experience much earlier on. While mindfulness has become a hot topic that many people are interested in, it often lacks the steps to actually achieve it. Brainwave entrainment can help us get there.
Brainwave Entrainment Paired with Qi Gong and Tai Chi (and Yoga?)
If you are practitioners of either art, maybe like me, your practice was 100% physical movements at the beginning which you tried to layer concentration, focus, and good feelings onto at a later time. By using brainwave entrainment while meditating, then standing to do a portion of a set, you know exactly how the set is supposed to make you feel and what clear, clean concentration feels like. The sensation of how tai chi quiets the mind can be enhanced feels a lot like brain entrainment. I am not a Yoga practitioner but imagine that they would have the same experience by using the beats and then practicing a pose.
Brainwave Entrainment and Focus at Work
Some of the best things we produce at work come from intense periods of focus. On the other side of that coin, the times that we are completely enjoying ourselves, not worried about the time, not aware of what is going on in the room, we are intensely focused. I used to think of this as a luxury. Like some spirit animal that would visit me when it felt like it. I can more systematically get into a state of high focus using brainwave entrainment audio designed for focus. That means better quality work, less mistakes, and meeting my deadlines.
Brainwave Entrainment and Concentration
I know I might be nerding out a bit but I separate focus from concentration. Focus to me deals with the time frame and my ability not to pogo-stick on and off topic. Concentration is my ability to think deeply, to solve, to create something brand new, and to be really proud of what I created when I come up for air. It is so, so enjoyable. Brainwave entrainment is akin to concentration because like how you slip deeper into meditative states, concentration starts as plain-old thinking before it expands into something greater. I am not sure exactly how it works but deep thought is really possible by using brainwave entrainment tracks.
If I’ve done my job here I’ve turned you from skeptical to considering. If you want to hear an example of what it sounds like and see what I use I wrote another article on it here.
Citations and Further Reading
- Blauert, J.: Spatial hearing – the psychophysics of human sound localization; MIT Press; Cambridge, Massachusetts (1983), ch. 2.4
- Griffin AL, Asaka Y, Darling RD, Berry SD (2004). “Theta-contingent trial presentation accelerates learning rate and enhances hippocampal plasticity during trace eyeblink conditioning”. Behav. Neurosci. 118 (2): 403–11.
- Gu X, Wright BA, Green DM (1995). “Failure to hear binaural beats below threshold”.The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 97 (1): 701–703.
- Saxby E, Peniston EG (1995). “Alpha-theta brainwave neurofeedback training: an effective treatment for male and female alcoholics with depressive symptoms”. Journal of clinical psychology 51 (5): 685–93.
- Wahbeh H, Calabrese C, Zwickey H, Zajdel J (2007). “Binaural Beat Technology in Humans: A Pilot Study to Assess Neuropsychologic, Physiologic, And Electroencephalographic Effects”. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine 13(2): 199–206.
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