The soothing sounds of binaural beats are thought to sharpen focus when cramming information into our chock-a-block heads. But a new study has found that binaural beats might actually hinder learning, not help it.
Michał Klichowski, a cognitive neuroscientist at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland, and colleagues wanted to see whether listening to binaural beats truly boosted cognitive performance as promoted, or if they were just a pleasant placebo effect.
They tested 920 Polish adults with samples of binaural beats, classical music, a pure tone, or no sounds at all while they completed a series of online tasks involving abstract reasoning, active concentration, and working memory.
After crunching the numbers on people's test scores, the researchers found listening to binaural beats "brings reverse effects to those assumed: instead of supporting the effectiveness of cognitive activities, it may weaken them."
Binaural beats have become popular in recent years, touted as a form of brain stimulation that grants "genius brain frequency" or helps people "reach super focus". Some people also report using them as 'digital drugs' to reduce pain, and ease anxiety and depression.
The carefully curated tonal sounds are designed to be played through headphones so each ear hears beats of a slightly different frequency.
It's thought that the brain then registers and mirrors this difference, producing the desired frequency of brain waves.
In the study, Klichowski and colleagues tested 15 Hz binaural beats, which are thought to enhance focus, memory and learning, and 5 Hz binaural beats, which supposedly generate calming theta rhythms, aid meditation and promote sleep.
Study participants completed the computer tasks at home, mimicking how people might use binaural beats as study tools better than lab studies would have done.
Generally, research studies involve short tests of a few minutes, whereas someone studying at home could be listening to binaural beats or other music for hours on end, finding it helps them drop into a focused state.
This study better emulated those conditions, asking people to sit in a place where they would normally study. Participants were then randomly assigned one of two tests lasting 40 minutes to an hour; which they completed with headphones on.
To look for a placebo effect, participants in the binaural beats group were either told the sounds would improve brain function or were neutral, or the sounds weren't described at all.
Regardless of what participants were told, and which of the two binaural beat frequencies they were assigned, the binaural beats had the same effect: worsening participants' cognitive performance compared to their baseline scores.
The other acoustic stimulations – working in silence, listening to classical music, or the drone of a single sound – had little to no effect on participants' performance.
In other words, the binaural beats weren't a neutral cocoon and there wasn't even a boost from the placebo effect amongst those told the beats might stimulate brain function; performance went backward whenever the binaural beats were used.
While more research is needed, the team has a few hypotheses as to why that might be.
Binaural beats might "somehow interfere with brain waves and lower their frequency so that brain activity is mismatched with the task at hand," suggests Klichowski.
For instance, if the brain generates theta waves, it might bring on drowsiness that's not conducive to concentrating.
Another possibility is that trying to modulate one brain-wave frequency might get in the way of normal brain processes, which require all sorts of frequencies to compute cognitive tasks.
Future studies recording brain waves in studious beats listeners might help researchers see more clearly what's going on.
The study has been published in Scientific Reports.