Brain Wave

Binaural beats and the poetics of brainhacking

A few years ago, I ruined my Spotify algorithm for good. Under a deadline and ready to try anything that might give my harder-working self an edge over my everyday, avoidant one, I started dabbling in playlists designed to promote elusive states like “focus,” “concentration,” and “flow.” I acquired a taste for the hard stuff pretty quick: It was a short hop from gentle piano suites with blushes of calm, oceanic whooshing to jacked-up, Scandi EDM that seemed laced with nootropics. Pretty soon, the math used to predict my desires was delivering me into psychedelic soundscapes that promised to “hack” my mind and reconfigure my brainwaves with sonic illusions and “binaural beats.” It felt like filling my brain with a robot’s fantasies. I kind of hated it. I definitely kept listening.

Binaural beats, which you can find in playlists on Spotify or YouTube or anywhere else people post music and sounds, are an auditory illusion designed to stimulate the brain. Proponents frame them as a pharma-free way to encourage the brain to perform the way you’d like it to. As a cultural phenomenon, they’re sort of in the same zone as ASMR — sounds our bodies respond to in unpredictable ways — but they also belong under the umbrella of sensory illusions used as self-development techniques. Strobe-light glasses are popular with high-performance athletes as a kind of resistance-training for the mind’s response to visual stimulus. Sensory deprivation, similarly, has been taken up by the wellness industry and re-branded as floatation therapy: a refreshing illusion that one’s demanding physical body has been dispensed with altogether. (Steph Curry is reportedly a fan of both strobing and floating.)

It felt like filling my brain with a robot’s fantasies. I kind of hated it. I kept listening

Though binaural beats sound high-tech, they were first discovered almost two centuries ago by Heinrich Wilhelm Dove, a Prussian physicist and meteorologist born around the start of the first Napoleonic War. Dove wrote about the earth’s warmth and magnetism, and his great love was the wind: he observed storms like they were animals, recording how they behave according to impulse and law. His interests were wide-ranging, and in 1839, Dove stumbled onto a curious phenomenon: he noticed that when two tuning forks with slightly different pitches were struck on either side of a room, a listener standing between them would hear a beat that could not, on a physical level, be accounted for.

Dove’s innocuous observation lay dormant for 134 years until 1973, when biochemist Gerald Oster dug deeper in the first seminal paper on the phenomenon of the binaural beat. The gist is this: when a pure tone is fed into one ear and a marginally different one goes into the other, a person will perceive a sound vibrating at the rate of the difference between them. So if 440 Hertz (A4, the note to which most orchestras are tuned) plays in your left ear while 400 Hertz plays in the right, your brain will reorganize the tones into a single note underscored by a “beat” thumping at a rate of 40 Hertz. Though they share a name, binaural beats are unrelated to binaural audio, aka 3-D sound: a recording method that uses two microphones to more realistically convey the entirety of a soundscape for a listener. The key thing about binaural beats is that they aren’t so much hyper-realistic as illusory — a response conjured in the mind, not one that’s extant in the physical world. It’s only in your head.

Why this might be useful has to do with neural entrainment: essentially, the brain’s tendency towards mimicry. If you’re alive, your brain is humming as your neurons emit coordinated electrical impulses at regular intervals. These brainwaves are traditionally separated into five frequency ranges: Delta (.5-4 Hz), Theta (4-8 Hz), Alpha (8-12 Hz), Beta (12-35 Hz), and Gamma (35+ Hz), each of which is associated with activities and emotional states like deep sleep, meditative inwardness, passive concentration, alert focus, etc.

The theory is that is that generating a binaural beat in your head might prompt your brainwaves to tune into the same frequency, encouraging you, neurologically speaking, into a highly-strung, hyper-focused Gamma state, or sending you coasting on a slower-moving Delta wave into REM. Brain entrainment may also work when beats or pulses are generated externally rather than in the brain, but something about the beat being in the head and thus “closer,” as it were, to the source has made it a more compelling subject for research. The science on whether or not binaural beats really work is intriguing, but mixed. Some studies have tentatively shown binaural beats to decrease anxiety, improve memory, and promote divergent thinking; while others have shown that the beats have no significant effect on attention, alertness, or vigilance.

This idea of using illusions as training is in some ways a very contemporary approach, in others a very, very old one. Toying with our own senses may be quite literally prehistoric. A candidate for the world’s oldest optical illusion can be found recurring among a suite of drawings and carvings from the Magdalenian Period (17,000–11,000 BCE) in Font-de-Gaume in Western France. The image seems to be a mammoth if you focus on certain details but reads as a bison if you look at others. Some have argued that the ambiguity is deliberate — that the hybrid megafauna was intentionally crafted to provoke a gestalt shift for paleo people.

I find myself drawn to such a simple, low-stakes way to experiment with changing my mind

You don’t have to carry too far forward in history to find more examples of sensory illusion being used to explain and transform the human experience. Ancient philosophers often turned to illusions to try to understand what might constitute objective truth. In the fifth century BCE, Epicharmus proposed that optical illusions were evidence that our minds might achieve a state of perfect knowledge while our bodies are prone to makes messes and mistake; his contemporary Protagoras went the other way, using illusions to show that our senses take in true knowledge which is then scrambled in our minds. Aristotle — discoverer and namesake of an illusion that involves touching something while crossing your fingers — split the difference, finding that our senses are basically trustworthy, though possible to trick. Plato, for his part, believed that the part of the soul activated by illusions was also the seat of pleasure — something that had a complicated, sometimes contradictory place in his overall project to attain “the good.”

Illusions reveal to us a gap between what’s happening in the world and what’s happening in our heads. One comfort is that they tend to be universal, affecting most people in the same way. This is what distinguishes illusion from hallucination: both are delusions, but one enforces a sense of shared reality while the other creates a private, alienated one. Though sensory illusions trick us into mistaking what is real, they are, in a way, evidence that our mind-body connection is performing as it is expected to.

Though illusions show our minds to be error-prone, they also reveal its creativity. Consider the blind spot, for example: a relatively sizable gap (6 x 8º) in the retinal field. This lacuna is permanent, but you’ll almost never notice — you have to actually trick yourself in order to catch it. The sensorium is just too good at swooping in to correct what it assumes is a glitch by sampling color, texture, brightness, and motion from the surrounding area and filling in the void before you even notice it’s there. This accommodation is, strictly speaking, illusory: a mismatch between reality and perception. Rather than simply ignoring the space that receives no stimulus, the visual system invents something and feeds the brain a figment. Somewhere between our physical senses and our understanding, we make up for what we don’t have.

I find the idea of using perceptual illusion as a method of self-hacking appealing because it lets me believe I might improve myself through the power of failure, leveraging my pronation towards error and misunderstanding, my gullibility and self-involvement. I get to play both the magician and the audience: pull off a sleight-of-hand and still leave entranced, altered, improved. I find myself drawn to such a simple, low-stakes way to experiment with changing my mind.

Admittedly, there are things about illusion-based brain work that leave me disconcerted. After all, replicable, medium-low-tech curatives are the bread and butter of a whole industry’s worth of nonsense methods, programs, and patents. Start investigating binaural beats, for example, and you’ll find yourself disconcertingly few search prompts away from “Solfreggio frequencies”: a ’70s contrivance that claims have unlocked sacred, 11th-century Benedictine numerology to produce soul-healing muzak. And from there you’re only a click from a former dentist and conspiracy theorist who peddles “frequency rehab” and a scary, chaotic array of other mumbo-jumbo as “alternatives” to antibiotics and vaccines.

A low-lying sense of injustice comes from being a person in a system where the basic condition of being human has been recast as evidence of underperformance

Even if you don’t stray too far from the path of verifiable claims, there are still reasons to be unsettled by DIY mind improvement. Like most things, entrainment quickly reveals itself to be about performance and its measurements: production, efficiency, success. Reading through online forums and guides to self-hackery, the goal-orientation of better living can start to seem like a pretty doomed and tragic effort. The effort to unlock brain function through leveraging its glitches can start to look a little Sisyphean: an attempt to wring every droplet perfection out of something fundamentally imperfect. It’s also hard to miss the air of scientific authority and zealous self-reliance that dominates these conversations. The sense that this is somehow an objective, boot-strapped pursuit rather than just trying out ways to feel little better, or just different.

This may not be so much about acquiring new abilities as it is chiseling away to excavate a higher-order self that has been held back or underserved. Our self-improvement culture is rife with this logic: the skinny person trapped inside the fat one, the genius whose brilliance is locked away, disregarded, or misunderstood. It’s as if the optimized performer is not an aspiration so much as a not-yet-realized truth. These narratives are powerful because they manage to be both self-aggrandizing and self-abnegating: a double-dose of importance and shame. The fantasy becomes one’s “true” self, while the person you happen to actually be right now — distracted, or imperfect, or sad — is more like an inconvenient embarrassment you’d rather deny association with.  

It’s not news that “hacking” has become a shorthand for exercises of privilege. Even if one is only trying to best themselves, the uncomfortable feeling I get is that entitlement is evidenced in the process itself, which imagines the better, higher-performing self as something that’s been lost, and is maybe even owed. Illusions have been devices to better know the human animal in its glory and its brokenness, to understand our place on earth, to see where we fit between animals and gods. Modern “brain hacking” techniques manage to turn our illusions into fodder for dominance.

A low-lying sense of injustice comes from being a person in a system where the basic condition of being human has been recast as evidence of underperformance. Rather than trying to change the conditions under which we live and labor to better accommodate our errant, human selves, we seem to have decided that our brains themselves need to be hot-wired into behaving better. We’re all “one weird trick” away from a perfect performance.

Here is a fact I like: Gerald Oster, the researcher  who drilled down on the science of binaural beats, had a whole second career as an artist. Oster, who studied the biochemistry of optical illusions as well as auditory ones, translated the visual splendor of his discoveries from the lab to the museum in paintings that have been shown at the MoMA and appeared on the cover of Vogue. His work was well-regarded in the 1960s OpArt movement, which turned the experience of misperception into a raw artistic goal.

I’ll never convince Spotify that this has nothing to do with my taste — it’s just my habit

You might say that everything we do is fundamentally mistaken, that error is our first language. The mind is like a spinning wheel, feeding on the raw material of sensation and winding it into sense. This is the manufacturing process we use to tell the tidy, fundamental lie of human consciousness: what is happening is happening to you.

In her often-cited poem “Essay on What I Think About Most,” Anne Carson proposes that metaphor is the pleasure of letting the mind gnaw on error and spit it back out again. A metaphor lets us momentarily experience two things that are different as if they are one. “Metaphors teach the mind / to enjoy error / and to learn / from the juxtaposition of what is and what is not the case,” she writes. Even after we walk it back — untangle the image, reverse the conflation — the exposure has already worked its magic. In the wake of metaphor, the fabric of the world itself seems to have been transformed. “The fact of the matter for humans is imperfection,” Carson writes.

When I work for long stretches, I still often listen to hypnotic, grueling music I don’t even like. I’ll never convince Spotify that this has nothing to do with my taste — it’s just my habit. I think of the binaural beat as the sound of my mind feeding on the complicated world, trying its best to make unity out of discord. The notes in each ear are not quite alike, yet they echo in my skull as one. The beat is what’s remaindered: the trace left behind, evidence of the work it takes to integrate the world around you and make it feel whole. I tell myself this is just a reminder. I tell myself it’s just a metaphor.

Suzannah Showler is the author of the poetry collections Thing is (McClelland & Stewart 2017) and Failure to Thrive (ECW 2014) and the book Most Dramatic Ever about The Bachelor. You can read her work in the New York Times Magazine, Slate, Buzzfeed Reader, the Walrus, Hazlitt, Maisonneuve, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other places.