Brainwave entrainment has become a popular alternative therapy by which people have attempted to treat psychological illnesses, increase their cognitive function, and willfully alter their state of consciousness. Historically people have utilized brainwave entrainment to help treat insomnia, reduce stress, and enhance meditation practices.
The specific benefits and claims from this technology are often disputed and considered scientifically questionable. One problem is that there are few experiments that have utilized brainwave entrainment for the purpose of treating a specific psychological ailment (e.g. insomnia). And the experiments that have been conducted are largely backed by corporations that sell the software; hence it could be speculated that there are conflicts of interest.
While it is no doubt that the technology does create changes in a person’s brain waves, whether there are valid scientific benefits resulting from those changes is up for debate.
Self-reports from those that have engaged in various types of brainwave entrainment have made claims such as: the software helped treat my depression or improved my mental focus. These claims are often vague and could be subjective and/or a placebo effect.
Benefits of Brainwave Entrainment Technology
It is important to take an objective look at published scientific evidence to determine whether brainwave entrainment is an effective treatment for certain conditions and/or symptoms. Most preliminary evidence suggests that while the technology will not cure any condition, it may be a successful adjunct treatment when used carefully with the proper protocol.
ADHD: In 1997, various researchers conducted a study testing whether children with ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) would benefit from audio-visual entrainment in a school setting. The researchers entrained a small sample of 34 students from 2 different schools. They were given audio-visual entrainment for a period of 1 month and 3 weeks at various times throughout the school day.
Initially the children were entrained to a mu-alpha rhythm (7 to 9 Hz) to decrease theta waves. After the initial mu-rhythm entrainment, they entrained SMR-beta waves for 22 minute sessions. The results as interpreted by TOVA demonstrated significant improvements in: inattentiveness, impulsivity, and variability. Teachers and parents also reported behavioral improvements among the children.
Altered states of consciousness: In as early as 1987 it was discovered that photic stimulation at specific frequencies produced an altered state of consciousness. An extremely small study with just 4 individuals involved photic stimulation at 6 Hz, 10 Hz, and 18 Hz. The results were reported to have altered their conscious awareness. This really isn’t that surprising to anyone that’s used brainwave entrainment therapy.
Not only do certain brain wave rhythms get strengthened as a result of entrainment, but a dominant frequency band results in a different state of awareness. Those that have used a quality brainwave entrainment product can vouch for the fact that their perception is altered by their brain waves. Not only could this be due to brainwave changes, but it may be a result of increased interhemispheric communication.
In a review of brainwave entrainment research, there were several studies that investigated short-term stress relief as well as long-term stress or “burnout.” Several used modalities of auditory stimulation, while a couple used audio-visual entrainment. Those with heightened short-term stress and anxiety were undergoing medical treatments, experiencing addiction, and/or were just anxious adults.
There appeared to be some evidence that 10 Hz stimulation (alpha waves) improved anxiety, but it wasn’t statistically significant. A study that utilized a ramping format of alpha to theta to delta waves (over the course of 10 minutes) found a significant improvement in anxiety. In terms of long-term stress, there is evidence that alpha and beta stimulation improved measures of “competence” and “emotional exhaustion.”
Another study found slight improvements in trait anxiety as a result of entrainment. It was noted that the study with the most successful protocol started at 30 Hz beta and ramped the frequency down until the person experienced relaxation for 15 minutes. This was then followed with a session of 8 Hz to 14 Hz for 7 minutes. The results suggested that 75% of individuals improved on their measures of long-term stress.
Behavior problems: In two separate studies with a total of 57 children, it was found that brainwave entrainment was able to significantly improve behavior problems. One of these studies was conducted on children with ADHD and determined that they significantly improved not only in regards to attention deficits, but also in their behavior. Both parents and teachers reported statistically significant improvements in how the children behaved.
A study that tested photic stimulation for reduction of poor behavior in ADHD children found that 15 sessions of photic stimulation between 12 Hz and 14 Hz resulted in behavioral change. This behavioral change was measured using the Achenbach Child Behavior Checklist – which accounted for not only the parent’s perspective, but self-reports from the children. Statistically it was stated that behavior improved up to 70% in the stimulation group compared to controls.
Biofeedback enhancement: In 1981, researcher Arturo Manns discovered that 15 minutes of stimulation with isochronic tones enhanced biofeedback protocols for bruxism (grinding of teeth). They did this by increasing muscle relaxation superior than standalone biofeedback. Brainwave entrainment is different from biofeedback in that it does not allow the person to consciously control their brainwave state.
Cognitive function: Many studies testing brainwave entrainment for its ability to influence cognition have analyzed things like verbal and non-verbal skills, memory, attention, general intelligence, and GPA. A study with school children reported noticeable improvements in ADHD symptoms as a result of alpha and beta stimulation.
Another small scale study with 30 children were entrained with a starting frequency of 14 Hz and ramped up to 40 Hz. Following the excitatory-based protocol, they were then given a protocol that started at 40 Hz and decreased to 14 Hz over 6 weeks. The results indicated that the children significantly improved in arithmetic abilities based on the WISC-III.
Attention and learning ability has been suggested to improve as a result of beta stimulation protocols. Research has shown that beta waves tend to be deficient among those who have learning disabilities and/or attention deficits. Other research with photic stimulation determined that stimulating 14 Hz and alternating it with 22 Hz over several sessions produced significant GPA improvements.
Headaches: There are several reports of brainwave entrainment providing therapeutic benefit for those suffering from general headaches or migraines. A study in 1985 analyzed photic stimulation within the theta range (5 Hz to 8 Hz) and discovered that this protocol provided significant headache relief. A total of 19⁄24 participants noted that the “slow wave” photic stimulation provided “complete relief” from chronic headaches and migraines.
Only 4 of the participants reported no change as a result of the stimulation. Four years later in a study (1989) by Anderson analyzed LED photic stimulation for the treatment of headaches. There were 60 patients included in the study which involved Variable Frequency Photo-stimulation (VFP) with specialized goggles that contained light-emitting diodes.
The eyes of the participants were closed and the VFP goggles illuminated in alternative manner; first the right eye, then the left. The rate at which the photic stimulation was conducted ranged between 0.5 Hz and 50 Hz. Of the 50 patients with migraines, 49 considered their headache as having been “helped” by the stimulation and 36 noted that their headache had completely “stopped” from the VFP goggles.
In an 18-month follow-up with the participants, it was discovered that the intervals between migraines appeared to increase as a result of the VFP stimulation. Researchers concluded that VFP stimulation appears to be an effective treatment for migraines.
Heart rate variability: A new study suggests that among those with low HRV (heart-rate variability), brainwave entrainment can increase HRV. Researchers studied individuals ages 20 to 70 and administered alpha brain stimulation. The alpha wave stimulation resulted in greater heart-rate variability. Since a low HRV is associated with early mortality and poor psychological and physical health, efforts made to increase it should be regarded as beneficial.
Pain relief: There have been a couple studies conducted that analyzed photic stimulation and its effects on pain tolerance. In a sample of 40 individuals who underwent photic stimulation during surgery reported significantly less pain than others. It was stated that approximately 23 out of 24 outcomes resulted in clinically significant benefit.
There have also been studies conducted analyzing brainwave entrainment for the treatment of muscle pain. Two studies have found that certain entrainment protocols provide muscle pain relief.
PMS: There is a little research that supports the efficacy of brainwave entrainment for PMS symptom reduction in women. Women with long-standing and severe forms of PMS were administered photic stimulations for a series of 3 menstrual cycles. Following the photic stimulation, it was noted that women reported 64% improvement by the second menstrual cycle and 76% improvement after all three cycles.
The reported PMS symptoms that improved included: affective lability, anxiety, appetite changes, bloating, breast tenderness, concentration difficulties, depression, fatigue, and irritability. Researchers noted that there was a clear “trend” toward a reduction in social withdrawal as a result of symptoms as well. A total of 49⁄50 women reported improvements.
Stress: In one randomized controlled trial with 108 participants, a single session of alpha and delta stimulation resulted in significantly less anxiety in surgical patients. Another session of theta stimulation resulted in improvement in certain measures of stress. Stimulation with certain frequencies of alpha and beta were reported to provide the most significant benefit for those who are stressed.
Potential Uses for Brainwave Entrainment
For individuals that lack certain brain waves to help them relax or focus, frequent usage of entrainment may provide a functional cure for their condition. For the majority of people, brainwave entrainment should be considered yet another tool that can be utilized to help manage and/or reduce symptoms of certain conditions.
Chronic fatigue: Subjective improvements in energy level may be reported by those who increase stimulatory beta and gamma waves. Fast waves tend to be associated with higher levels of arousal. Low arousal is associated with chronic fatigue and may be exacerbated by slow brain waves (e.g. theta and delta). As of now there aren’t any studies that have analyzed various protocols for their effect on a person’s energy or arousal.
Creativity: Measuring “creativity” is likely subjective, but many people stuck in a certain dominant brain wave may benefit creatively from shifting the brain wave dominance. Someone who has excess beta waves may fail to relax enough to access certain (potential) creative properties associated with increased alpha waves. Similarly someone stuck in a slow wave state may benefit creatively from increasing beta waves.
Depression: Currently there is no substantial evidence to support the idea that brainwave entrainment treats depression in adults. Some evidence goes as far as to suggest that the wrong entrainment protocol (e.g. slow wave stimulation) may actually increase certain measures of depression. Stimulation of delta and/or theta, will likely worsen the condition and alpha is unlikely to have an effect.
There is minimal evidence that suggests beta stimulation may decrease scores of depression. Further investigation with both beta stimulation and possibly gamma stimulation may be useful for improving depressive symptoms. Keep in mind that none of the studies enlisted protocols that were specifically designed to improve depression.
Hemispheric synchronization: Whether it’s optimal or suboptimal to operate in a state of hemispheric synchronization remains unknown. Some speculate there are numerous benefits of brain waves operating in “sync” as a result of entrainment. There may be an increased communication between the right and left hemisphere of the brain – which could improve certain functions. However, it is also important to realize that increased hemispheric synchronization may not be as beneficial as many have speculated.
Insomnia: Perhaps one of the most promising uses of brainwave entrainment technology is for those struggling with insomnia. While the technology is unlikely to provide a “cure” it may help those who have a high level of arousal or are “keyed-up” – reduce their level of internal arousal and sleep. Specifically insomnia that is induced by excess stress (e.g. beta activity) would likely benefit from slower wave stimulation (e.g. alpha activity) to aid the brain in transitioning into sleep.
Learning: Since performance improves among those with ADHD and cognitive function may be boosted, one may hypothesize that learning would also improve. Those that are struggling to learn as a result of inattentiveness may benefit from stimulation with beta frequencies. Deficits in learning tend to be associated with abnormal or excess slow wave frequencies.
Lucid dreaming: A lucid dream is considered a dream that a person is aware of and often able to consciously manipulate. Many have alleged that using brainwave entrainment technology makes it easier to experience a lucid dream. Scientists have studied this phenomenon and noticed that beta frequencies within the range of 13 to 19 Hz tend to be generated to keep the person conscious. Additionally there is significant increased activity in the parietal lobes of the brain, which allows an individual to stay conscious.
Meditation enhancement: There are several companies that sell brainwave entrainment sessions specifically designed to enhance meditation. The sounds provide a stimuli to focus on during the meditation, and the brain waves naturally shift towards the frequency provided. Whether meditation is actually enhanced by brainwave entrainment is a subject of debate. However, advanced meditators commonly experience brainwave synchronization – which the right and left hemispheres display the same frequency brain waves. While there are scientific benefits of meditation, it is unclear as to whether they are enhanced, hindered, or unaffected by adjunctive brainwave entrainment.
Memory: There is not sufficient evidence to suggest that brainwave entrainment improves memory. However since cognitive function improves as a result of entrainment, short and/or long term memory may be improved by stimulation with certain frequencies. While lower frequencies may be beneficial for recalling certain memories, conscious processing of the memories generally requires sufficient beta.
Mood: While brainwave entrainment may not be a great option for depression, particularly in the slower frequency ranges, beta entrainment may improve certain measures of mood. Additionally it is important to consider the fact that many people experience detrimental changes in mood as a result of heightened stress and anxiety. Since brainwave entrainment has been shown to improve stress and relaxation, overstressed individuals may experience a simultaneous mood improvement.
Relaxation: There is already evidence that brainwave entrainment helps improve relaxation. In studies analyzing short-term stress and anxiety, significant improvements were noted. This has been verified by other studies that suggest brainwave entrainment enhances muscle relaxation in biofeedback and can help with pain reduction and migraine headaches. The relaxation-induced response of entrainment may be responsible for a variety of the benefits.
Sleep improvement: There is significant anecdotal evidence that sleep induction and/or quality may be improved as a result of brainwave entrainment. While it is important to consider the placebo effect or simply the effect of a relaxing sound, many people have reported noticeable improvements in their ability to fall asleep and wake up feeling refreshed as a result of entrainment. Entraining frequencies within the slower wave ranges such as alpha, theta, or delta, may help individuals transition more quickly to those states.
Targeted hemispheric changes: Some speculate that specific alterations in brain waves can be made on an individual basis. In other words, you can target one frequency in one hemisphere (via the right ear) and another distinct frequency in the other hemisphere (via the left ear). The left ear affects the right hemisphere and right ear affects the left hemisphere.
It has been hypothesized that entraining beta waves in the logical, left-hemisphere and alpha in the intuitive, right hemisphere may yield benefit. Neurofeedback practitioners have argued that excess slow waves in the left hemisphere and fast waves in the right hemisphere may contribute to mental illnesses.
Note: It is important to understand that some people who use brainwave entrainment don’t get any noticeable relief.
Brainwave Entrainment Frequencies
When using brainwave entrainment, it is important to utilize entrainment frequencies that make the most logical sense for your goal. If you want to improve your attention, you’ll probably want to stay away from the theta range. Similarly if your goal is to improve relaxation, you’ll probably want to stay away from the high beta range.
Beta stimulation: There is evidence that stimulation within the beta range can improve attention, measures of intelligence, relieve short-term stress, decrease headaches, and decrease behavioral problems. Some evidence even suggests that beta could decrease emotion-based exhaustion. Many people with slower frequency brain waves may benefit from regular beta stimulation.
Alpha stimulation: Stimulation of alpha waves has been shown to provide stress-relief among employees, is able to provide pain relief, and improve measures of competence and recognition. If you have significant work-related stress, entraining certain alpha frequencies may help you decrease arousal and improve relaxation. Post-surgical stress doesn’t appear to benefit from alpha stimulation.
Theta stimulation: There appears to be no benefit associated with using theta stimulation for cognitive functioning, mood, or stress relief. While theta may be a useful way to induce sleep or alter your state of consciousness, there really isn’t much science supporting entrainment in this particular range for most purposes. Photic stimulation of theta between 5 Hz and 7 Hz can be useful for headaches.
Delta stimulation: The current science suggests that delta stimulation may improve short-term measures of stress as well as headaches and/or migraines. There is no evidence to support the usage of delta stimulation to improve mood or long-term stress.
Note: The effects of gamma stimulation are relatively unknown and understudied. There is some evidence that beta and gamma entrainment may improve arithmetic skills and learning ability.
Brainwave entrainment warrants further research
While it may not be a perfect therapeutic option for treating certain psychological conditions, brainwave entrainment is yet another tool that warrants further testing and exploration. There is clear evidence that certain protocols may benefit human performance. Unfortunately nearly all of the research has been conducted by those who clearly are affiliated with those who manufacture brainwave entrainment products.
Additionally, most of the studies have been conducted with extremely small samples and the touted benefits are vague. When studying the effects, it would be beneficial to hook each participant up to an EEG, note initial brainwave activity, then post-entrainment, note any changes. Although certain conditions share similarities in brainwave activity, this is clearly not always the case.
Two people with ADHD for example could have completely different ADHD subtypes. One could have inattentiveness as the primary symptom as a result of high theta waves, and the other could have high beta-2 waves as feel hyperactive. While generalized entrainment protocols should be studied, it is important to consider that each person may respond differently to the protocols; each person has a unique neural footprint.
I also believe that the dangers of brainwave entrainment should be further explored as well. There are relatively vague benefits, but it remains unclear as to whether entraining certain frequencies may be detrimental to performance or induce harm. Despite the fact that brainwave entrainment has existed for a long term, it remains an understudied niche in neuroscience.
Have you experienced benefits from brainwave entrainment?
If you’ve used brainwave entrainment and experienced any benefits, feel free to share your experience in the comments section below. Be sure to discuss why you believe the entrainment was effective and/or whether you think it could’ve been a placebo effect. I’ve played around with the products and feel as if they are great for relaxation enhancement, inducing a temporary perceptual change (i.e. altered state of consciousness), and arousal reduction.
Brainwave entrainment is clearly NOT an effective standalone treatment for mental illness, but it may be an effective adjunct treatment in certain individuals. It should also be mentioned that when using brainwave entrainment, you may want to have a specific purpose in mind. If your goal is to relax, yet you’re using a protocol that is stimulating, you may falsely conclude that it doesn’t work even though you’re using the wrong protocol.