The internal rhythm of the brain is called brainwaves and the brainwave pattern varies depending on what a person is doing – sleeping, relaxing, analyzing, etc. Brainwave entrainment is the response of the brain to stimulation with rhythmical sound, such as pulses or beats. After being stimulated with a certain frequency for a period of time, the brain reproduces the same frequency with its internal rhythm, thus achieving a targeted state.
The use of brainwave entrainment techniques offers many benefits for overall health and well-being, including improved emotional stability, increased cognitive function, and a deepening of creative insight. Much of this benefit derives from the hemispheric synchronization occurring as a result of entrained brainwaves. This effect happens when the electrical impulses in both hemispheres synchronized to the same frequency being delivered through the entrainment source.
To fall asleep we need to go from our normal waking state, to a relaxed theta, and then finally all the way to delta. Binaural beats are a scientifically proven way to speed up this process, so you get to the delta state quicker and as a result fall asleep faster. For more about the science of binaural beats, have a read of the article Fall Asleep Fast With Binaural Beats.
Binaural beats can easily be heard at the low frequencies (< 30 Hz) that are characteristic of the EEG spectrum (Oster, 1973). This perceptual phenomenon of binaural beating and the objective measurement of the frequency-following response (Hink, Kodera, Yamada, Kaga, & Suzuki, 1980) suggest conditions which facilitate entrainment of brain waves and altered states of consciousness. There have been numerous anecdotal reports and a growing number of research efforts reporting changes in consciousness associated with binaural-beats. "The subjective effect of listening to binaural beats may be relaxing or stimulating, depending on the frequency of the binaural-beat stimulation" (Owens & Atwater, 1995). Binaural beats in the delta (1 to 4 Hz) and theta (4 to 8 Hz) ranges have been associated with reports of relaxed, meditative, and creative states (Hiew, 1995), and used as an aid to falling asleep. Binaural beats in the alpha frequencies (8 to 12 Hz) have increased alpha brain waves (Foster, 1990) and binaural beats in the beta frequencies (typically 16 to 24 Hz) have been associated with reports of increased concentration or alertness (Monroe, 1985) and improved memory (Kennerly, 1994).
That is generally where the science ends and the pseudoscience begins. A number of companies and individuals have then extrapolated from the phenomenon of entrainment to claim that altering the brain waves changes the actual functioning of the brain. There is no theoretical or empirical basis for this, however. Entrainment is a temporary effect on the synchronization of neuronal firing – it does not improve or increase brain functioning, it does not change the hardwiring, nor does it cure any neurological disorder. There is no compelling evidence for any effect beyond the period of entrainment itself.
You’ve heard me talk before about how sound can make a difference to sleep. Patients often tell me that they fall asleep to relaxing music, they seem to find it really helps them let go of active thoughts and quiet their mind—which, like yours probably does, tends to race from one thing to the next all day long (aka I can’t turn off my brain syndrome).
In addition to potentially boosting sleep-promoting hormones, binaural beats may also reduce our perceptions of pain. A 2017 study found binaural beats used in combination with visual stimulation led to reductions in patients’ perception of acute pain. Other recent research showed binaural beats helped improve pain perception in patients with chronic pain.
Binaural beats is a method where two sound waves of different frequencies are introduced into each ear. These frequencies when processed by the brain cancel each other out, creating a whole new frequency. So if we had a tone of 500 Hz in one ear and a 510 Hz tone in the other, the result would be a 10 Hz tone. So while a 10 Hz tone couldn’t be directly heard, using binaural beats we can create that tone inside our brain.
Most of these websites give some brief explanation of entrainment. The example you hear most often is that of Dutch polymath Christiaan Huygens, who in 1665, hung two pendulum clocks next to each other on a wall. He noticed that the pendulums eventually matched each others' frequency, but always in antiphase, opposite to each other, as if canceling each other out. He'd try disturbing one or setting them in sync, but they'd always return to the same antiphase synchronization. Huygen's experience is widely touted on binaural beat websites as a demonstration of how systems can become spiritually connected through some energy field. However, they misunderstand what happened, and have not read the full story. Huygens also tried taking one clock off the wall, and as soon as they were no longer physically connected to one another via the actual wall, the effect disappeared. It was not the proximity of the clocks to one another that created the entrainment; it was their physical, mechanical connection to one another. As each pendulum swung it imparted an infinitesimal equal and opposite reaction to the wall itself. With two clocks on the wall, the system naturally sought the lowest energy level, according to the laws of thermodynamics; and both pendulums would thus swing exactly counter to each other, minimizing the system's total energy.
You listen to binaural beats using headphones. In each ear, you receive sound at a slightly different frequency (often accompanied by some relaxing background sounds). If your left ear receives a 300-hertz tone and your right ear receives a 280-hertz tone, your brain will process and absorb a 10-hertz tone. That’s a very low-frequency soundwave—one you can’t actually hear. But you don’t need to hear the sound for your brain to be affected by it.
Isochronic tones work just the same in delta as they do in alpha, theta and beta and they are widely used in the brainwave entrainment community to help people sleep. Like you, I’ve also seen some websites saying they don’t work in delta, but it’s a bit like the game of Chinese Whispers, where someone makes a comment and then after it gets passed around and shared a lot the message gets distorted and appears to be a fact. I don’t know of any scientific reason why they wouldn’t work in delta. I remember some people talking about this on a brainwave entrainment forum many years ago. They were saying they found isochronic tones a bit too abrupt for using to help them sleep and they preferred binaural beats, as they thought they were a more soothing sound. That was just a personal preference shared by a couple of prominent forum members at the time and some people then took that as a fact for everyone. That’s where I think that belief originated from.
So to summarize their claim, they're saying that entrainment means that a binaural beat will cause your brain's electroencephalogram to match the pattern of the phantom beat. Well, if it did, entrainment certainly doesn't apply and would not be part of the equation, so we can scratch that off the list. But it doesn't make the claimed observation wrong. We do know that certain electroencephalogram waveforms are often associated with certain kinds of activity. For example, physical activity or REM sleep often produces an electroencephalogram with a sine wave of between 4 and 8 Hz, which we term a theta pattern. Waking relaxation with eyes closed often produces a pattern from 8 to 12 Hz, which is called an alpha pattern. There are only a few characterized patterns, and pretty general descriptions of what kinds of activities go with them. The claim made by the binaural beat sellers depends on much more granular and specific matches. For example, the claim that a binaural beat with a frequency of X produces the same effect in your brain as Vicodin is wholly implausible. Such claims presume that we know the exact frequency of the electroencephalogram in each of these desired conditions, and the fact is that brain waves don't work that way. It is wholly and absolutely implausible to say that desired brain condition X will occur if we get your EEG to read exactly X Hz.