High on Audio: I Tried to Relax With Binaural Beats
The Monroe Institute has been going since the 70s and claims its Hemi-Sync program can lead to "discovery of self through technology."
"Go to sleep if you wish."
The voice is dulcet and relaxing. "I'll call you when it's time to return," it says, before fading out to a reverberating sound like the distant ocean. This sound, the voiceover tells me, is pink.
I am listening to Hemi-Sync, a "binaural beat technology" developed by the Monroe Institute, a US-based non-proft organisation that, according to its website, aims to "further the experience and exploration of consciousness, expanded awareness and discovery of self through technology."
For the uninitiated, binaural beats play differing tones into each ear simultaneously, inviting the subconscious mind to fill in the gaps between them. Thus, the two hemispheres of the brain are "synched" and the mind's unrealised potential can be tapped.
Or so the story goes.
The Monroe Institute was founded in the early 70s. While much of the hippie ethos of 1967—LSD, psychedelic music, and free love—seems somehow twee in an age of hypercapitalism, biohacking, and the impending singularity, it continues to grow and now has chapters all over the world.
So what keeps people coming back? I asked Luigi Sciambarella, an "outreach facilitator" with the Monroe Institute's UK branch.
"Hemi-Sync has all kinds of positive benefits. Some people use it for relaxation. Others use Hemi-Sync with concentration frequencies when they're studying… the idea is to take something the brain can naturally do and then amplify it," he said.
Sciambarella told me that different Hemi-Sync "signals" could help induce either concentration, relaxation, or "expanded awareness."
"In terms of the meditative aspects of Hemi-Sync, people can explore the far reaches of conscious experience, which can have profound implications for how they understand their place in the world and gain direct experience of the underlying interconnectedness of all things," he said.
In the name of research, I decided to try it for myself. I plugged in my earphones and tuned in, and despite my cynical millennial soul and an Autumn storm raging at the window, I found myself lulled along by the reverberating noises and the calm words of the voiceover. The main effect was a sudden and deep relaxation that I wasn't even trying for. I didn't fully drop out and the trip was far from cosmic, but it definitely did enough to make me want to try it again.
But is the effect really the result of binaural beats? Despite the Monroe Institute's claims when it comes to the effects of Hemi-Sync—such as that it can improve focus and performance—mainstream science remains unconvinced.
"Binaural beat is a 'strange' perceptual phenomenon because it is a form of illusion—a kind of sound that we do not normally encounter in our everyday lives—and so it generates an unfamiliar perception that is easy to then attribute to supra-ordinary phenomena," Dr Maria Chait, a reader in auditory cognitive neuroscience at UCL, told me. "I think this is why it has attracted so much interest… But the claims made about it on the Monroe Institute website are quite blatantly wrong and frustratingly misleading."
Binaural beats occur when the brain combines differing audio stimuli coming through both ears, which is a necessary function for locating sound sources in three dimensions, or tracking moving sounds.
"There is no link between this phenomenon to hemispheric synchronization and no solid experimental support that I am aware of to the claim that it leads to improvement in perceptual performance," said Chait.
Indeed, peer reviewed scientific studies also cast doubt on the claims that binaural beats can lead to altered states of consciousness or improved brain function. One study published in PLOS One in 2012 concluded that "no significant differences were found in vigilance or cortical frequency power (the waves seen on an EEG recording of brain activity) during binaural beat stimulation compared to a white noise control period."
"We ask people to come with an open mind, to not sign up to any dogma or belief system."
So is the effect of binaural beats all in our heads? Is the Institute more cult than research facility, built on questionable science and reverence for former game show host and founder Robert Monroe?
Sciambarella is sanguine about such accusations.
"If The Monroe Institute is a cult then we're the world's worst cult! We ask people to come with an open mind, to not sign up to any dogma or belief system, and importantly, question everything and find things out for themselves," he said. "You're free to test everything… keeping what resonates with you and discarding the things that do not."
On that thought, I plug my headphones back in, and set off once more in search of oneness.
I'll call you when it's time to return.
Lit Up is a series about heightening—and dulling—our sense of perception. Follow along here.