By: Erin Stair, MD, MPH
I had an Algebra teacher who played classical music during our examinations to see if it impacted performance. That was the first time I genuinely became interested in how sounds ( or sound therapy) impacted attention, focus and memory. Could listening to certain beats or frequencies get me better grades? Could it help folks with ADHD? Will I focus better? Can I use arrangements of sounds to help fight off dementia when I’m older? I found the classical music distracting. Subjectively, it irritated me and didn’t help me to perform better. At least one study ( albeit a small one) supports what I experienced.
A study conducted at Virginia Tech and published in Plos One analyzed whether listening to binaural acoustic stimulations at frequencies 5 Hz, 10 Hz, 15 Hz or classical music would affect working memory in adults ( ages 19-46). Working memory is the brain’s system in control of processing and organizing information so as to reason, comprehend and make goal-oriented decisions. All of the adults wore headphones, because headphones are required for binaural beats to work. One frequency is presented to the left ear, another frequency is presented to the right ear, and the difference between the two frequencies is the frequency of the binaural beat. The binaural beat doesn’t exist in space like its two parent frequencies, which is why many refer to it as a phantom beat. Different states of mood and alertness are associated with each frequency, and the exact mechanism of action is questionable. The most common explanation is “brainwave entrainment” but that is not proven. A growing body of research suggests it is a much more global and systemic effect.
Results of the study showed that the binaural stimulation at 15 Hz significantly improved the accuracy of working memory, whereas the 5 Hz, 10 Hz and classical music negatively impacted working memory by reducing accuracy. 15 Hz is categorized as a Beta wave, and pure Beta waves are associated with improved concentration and focus. I’m happy to report that our pure Build Focus and Attention ZENTones are binaural stimulations at 15 Hz. The ones for creativity are designed a little differently…
Will listening to binaural stimulations at 15 Hz improve your memory and/or ability to focus? Will studying be easier? Will you get better grades? Will you remember things easier at work? Maybe. Everyone is different, confounding factors are everywhere, and a lot more research needs to be done to hash out the most optimal protocols. Still, given there are no major side effects, this type of “sound therapy” is worth a shot. Today there is an epidemic of “smart pills,” where otherwise healthy students take prescription stimulant pills for ADHD with hopes of achieving better grades. These pills have a slew of side effects and aren’t anything I’d put in my body. Side effects include mood changes, anxiety, insomnia, addiction, fluctuations in appetite and weight, and serious heart problems. (Subjectively, I think these pills cause a person to look older than his/her age, but that may have something to do with the deleterious effects on sleep.) Furthermore, a study of 898 college students shows that the pills did not help students increase their GPAs or gain an advantage over their peers. In fact, students who didn’t take smart pills had significantly higher increases in their GPAs.
So…, a slew of side effects and not a significant increase in GPA? Nah. No thanks. I’ll stick to natural.