In the 1800s, Prussian physicist and meteorologist Heinrich Wilhelm Dove discovered a new phenomenon: that playing a sound heard in one ear, then playing another in the other ear with a slightly different tone, could create a curious vibration. A pulsation or throbbing in the mind (and body), this auditory illusion created different perceptions of sound in both the brain and the ears. Upon its discovery, this phenomenon was treated merely as a curiosity - but by the 1970s, scientists had started realising that there could be more to this, particularly in the effects it could have on the brain.
They found that these sounds - dubbed binaural beats - might actually help us improve various brain-related functions and cognitive abilities, from boosting focus, memory, and concentration, to reducing stress and anxiety, facilitating relaxation, and improving sleep quality.
In the modern day, binaural beats have started becoming a popular go-to for enthusiasts of holistic and new age wellness methodology, and their popularity only seems to be rising - not just among the wellbeing vox populi, but also with scientific researchers. A 2020 study found that the use of acoustic binaural beats in chronic pain treatments could be surprisingly effective and even comparable to some levels of analgesics, while other studies have found that they can - especially at certain frequencies - help us have better memory retention, learn faster, sleep more deeply, focus better, and experience greater creativity.
Sounds almost too good to be true, doesn't it? So the questions that follow, naturally, are 1.) Do they really work? and 2.) How do they actually work?
Well, in terms of their effectiveness, studies are still ongoing. With sound often being so closely tied to personal triggers in reactivity, it's easy to see how what might resonate (pun intended) beautifully with one person may not work so well with another - but the science, so far, seems to indicate that there is merit to their effectiveness. It seems that they do indeed work, but the jury is still out on how profound their effect might be - and I suspect that that will differ greatly based on the individual, with causative factors ranging from their state of mind to their sensitivity to sound. While I don't think we'll be able to use binaural beats as a substitute for pain medication in major traumas just yet, the short answer on whether these sounds can affect our brains or not is that all signs point to "yes".
As for the "how", they work much in the same way that all types of sound healing do: by affecting our brainwave states, and the vibrational frequencies that our bodies are attuned to. Depending on what frequency you're listening to, the resulting effect would create stimulation encouraging anything from more alertness to reaching a deeper dream state. Regardless of which frequency you choose, it is important to note how high the decibels are: that is to say, the volume of the sound. Binaural beats must be listened to through headphones or earphones to be effective, but doing so at too high of a volume can cause potential damage to the ears, especially if the exposure to the overtly-loud sound is too long and too frequent. All you really need is to ensure that it's loud enough for you to feel the communication between the two tones - but keep it gentle, and watch the volume.
Interestingly, some users even experience irritation or frustration while listening to binaural beats. Again, there isn't a clear answer yet on why, but experts suggest that it's most likely linked to the fact that some people find repeated exposure to auditory stimuli to be anxiety-inducing. If this is the case, then rather than helping to ease one's depression, they might actually make it worse.
As with most things in life - and a majority of health-related advice in general - the use, effectiveness, and safety of remedies such as binaural beats can really depend on the person involved. Just like how no single exercise regime, nutrition programme, or type of scent is going to be received in the same way by everyone - because we are all different - it is much the same with sounds such as binaural beats. If they work for you, and you find them to be a helpful part of a healthy lifestyle embracing more mindfulness, then that's great, and just make sure that you're protecting your ears and hearing while you enjoy them. If they don't agree with you, then don't force it - there are plenty of other types of holistic healing methods, including therapeutic sound options from pink noise to Tibetan sound bowls, that might suit you better.