Meditation has been practiced by monks and mystics in many religions across history and geography. Traditionally, it has been seen as a path to enlightenment, a means to develop divine intuition, a way to commune with a deity, and other spiritual pursuits.
More recently, of course, meditation has become popular for its benefits to self-improvement. These benefits are frequently not spiritual at all. Meditation is used to improve work, relationships, health, sports achievements…you name it, there’s a self-help benefit to meditation. In fact, Sukhasana (the cross-legged pose that has come to symbolize meditation around the world) has become a personal brand for many people, representing their ability to simply sit and “be” with the meditation process. Pretty awesome, really.
But what if, in any type of meditation practice, there were other ways to trigger a meditative state, beyond the tried-and-true method of Sukhasana? If you’ve ever experienced a chatty mind during meditation (perhaps you’ve heard it called “monkey mind”), you already can imagine the benefit of getting a little extra help.
Brain and Mind Are Not the Same Thing
The brain and the mind are not synonymous.
The brain is the physical organ that regulates all activity in the body. It’s complex and crucial to living life. Barring misdiagnosis, when someone is said to be “brain dead”, there’s no hope of recovery. The heart can be made to pump and the lungs can be made to expand, but without the brain, the body cannot regulate itself. It cannot function as a living thing on its own.
The mind, on the other hand, while equally complex and mysterious, is not a physical thing. Rather, it’s an exhaustive set of phenomena that result in “consciousness”. If the brain’s job can be said to regulate the body’s ability to live, the mind’s job is to both express and experience life. That’s some of why the mind is so chatty. In its untiring quest to express itself, the mind fires off an infinite number of thoughts and feelings that often overlap, contradict, and jumble together. That’s the “monkey mind” we notice so keenly in meditation.
Of course, the mind is also capable of experiencing elevated states of consciousness, even for extended periods of time. We just have to quiet its chatter first.
If you could quiet the mind by quieting the brain, that would be pretty cool. Of course, you can’t just magically hack your brain to quiet it. But there is a kind of technology that has shown to be effective in helping do just that. Granted, scientific understanding of the human brain is still very limited. But recent research has shown that there are ways to actually induce meditative states by deliberately changing brainwaves through a process called Brain Entrainment.
As meditation has spread further into Western secular activities, the cerebral benefits of meditation are now well-documented. Even only a few minutes of meditation practice per day can lead to positive physical and mental changes. However, we have only just scratched the surface of the possibilities inherent in meditation when audio and visual stimuli are involved. While not a new technology – brain entrainment was discovered in the 19th century – it’s been only recently that science has allowed us to become extremely detailed with its application.
Below, we’ll go over the different types of brain activity before diving into how Brain Entrainment can lead to deeper, more fulfilling meditative states.
Understanding our Brainwaves
Before we can go into the process of brain entrainment and how it works, we have to understand our brainwaves.
The cells in your brain, called neurons, are all connected in an intricate web. There are millions of neurons in your brain, all linked to thousands of tasks.
These neurons use electricity to communicate with one another. When detected with an electroencephalogram (EEG) test, they form a wavelike pattern. Like sound waves, brainwaves are measured in Hertz – that is, the number of cycles per second. The higher the hertz, the faster and higher the sound wave or brainwave.
There are five main types of brainwaves, defined as the following:
Delta waves are produced during deep, dreamless sleep. They are the slowest type of brainwave, measuring between 0.5 and 4 Hz.
Theta waves are produced during light sleep or periods of extreme relaxation or calm. They are associated with visualization as well as deep relaxation. Theta waves measure between 4 and 8 Hz.
Alpha waves are in the middle of the brain wave spectrum. Like theta wave, they are also produced during times of calm and relaxation, such as immediately after waking up. However, they’re faster than theta waves, measuring between 8 and 12 Hz, which means that they are present during greater focus. A normal meditation practice, such as one where you focus on the breath, usually involves sinking into the Alpha wave state.
Beta waves appear when you are awake, more alert, and more focused. Daily activities, conversations, and decision-making all involve a beta wave state, measuring between 12 and 35 Hz. While there are some meditation practices that result in beta brainwaves, those practices are difficult for many people to maintain because the brain is in a state of alertness. Which leads to inner-chattiness.
Beta waves are a perfectly normal and natural state to be in. However, extended time at the high end of the beta wave spectrum most likely means that your brain is experiencing feelings of stress.
Gamma waves are the fastest brain waves, measuring upwards of 35 Hz. They occur while processing information, actively learning, and solving problems. But there’s something that’s been discovered about gamma waves that is a bit mind-blowing:
Gamma waves were found to appear more frequently in Tibetan monks during extended meditation. Again, the kind of intense meditation undertaken by these monks is beyond what most people can achieve, or stick with for any length of time. But the benefits of getting there are tremendous, especially if you’re seeking a spiritual meditation practice. While most meditation, such as breathing and counting meditation, has been found to result in a state of relaxation (theta and maybe low beta brainwave activity), experienced meditators actually enter a state more akin to calm but intense focus. It’s almost like being in a room of light so bright that you can see everything without effort.
Now that you know a little bit about the brainwaves involved in different states of brain activity, you can see how giving the brain a “nudge” so that it switches between these states could be of benefit. But how do you do this?
This is where a brainwave technology, called brain entrainment, comes in.
How Brain Entrainment Actually Works
Most brain entrainment involves using specific audio frequencies to sync your brainwaves to a desired state.
This process is not as strange as it sounds. After all, your brain already changes its state according to external stimuli. A loud alarm clock may jolt you from slow theta or alpha waves to fast beta waves. Crawling into a warm bed in a dark room will likely slow your brainwaves down as well. Even events such as a whiff of the perfume your grandmother used to wear, hearing a song from your middle school years come onto your Spotify, or coming across a nubby sweater you used to wear when you were in college…these physical events trigger intense changes in consciousness. Just as consciousness influences the brain, the brain influences consciousness. Direct your brainwaves to states of, say, beta waves, and your consciousness will become more relaxed (or more awake, if you were in a deep state of sleep).
Audio brain entrainment uses two different sound technologies: binaural beats and isochronic tones.
Binaural beats are tones that are slightly detuned from one another. These tones are fed singularly, one in each ear (for this reason, binaural beats require headphones). When listening for an extended period of time, the brain naturally begins to align itself with the brainwave frequency created by these sound tones.
Isochronic tones are different in that they are monaural. Rather than relying on the creation of a detuned “beat”, isochronic tones are pulsing beats arranged at specific intervals based on frequency charts. They sound more like fast clicking or pulsing, depending on their tonal pitch. The effect is the same as with binaural beats, in that they induce the brainwaves to get into synch with the frequency delivered to brain via sound.
The chief difference between binaural beats and isochronic tones is in how they are applied. While binaural beats can be accepted by the brain without actually hearing them at high volume, isochronic tones are thought to require active listening on the part of the person using them. That is, the clicking sound must be loud enough to be heard, rather than buried inside white noise of some kind.This is why binaural beats, while an older technology, is often the more popular.
This is because the thing that binaural beats and isochronic tones have in common is that they are markedly unappealing to listen to. For a few minutes, you can listen to pretty much anything. But to receive the brainwave benefits of binaural beats and isochronic tones, you need to be exposed to them for longer than many people find comfortable in their raw form. For over a 150 years, this has been the biggest obstacle to a frequent and accessible application of this interesting technology.
A Side Note About Visual Entrainment
As a subset of brain entrainment, audio-visual entrainment is gaining ground. This process uses both sounds and pulses of light to guide your brainwaves to the desired frequency range.
Newer than audio entrainment, audio-visual entrainment is still being studied. It has been used to treat anxiety, ADHD, and insomnia with promising results.
Brain Entrainment in Everyday Life
The process of using a repeated sound to alter one’s mental state is nothing new. It has appeared in the spiritual practices of different cultures for thousands of years around the world.
Native American drum circles, Sufi chanting, and Tibetan prayer bowls are all older examples of sound-based meditation. Listening to repetitive techno or house music at a club can fulfill a similar need in modern life. During the pandemic, as people have looked to being both soothed and kept in their chairs to work, downtempo lo-fi music has skyrocketed in popularity.
As a species, we have discovered innumerable ways to “hack our brains” to produce desired behaviors. Choir and other religious music has often been created with specific tonalities to achieve states of focus that make us feel spiritually connected to God and to one another. We play fast music in the morning to get ourselves going, and we gravitate to something more chill as evening falls. People go to parks to listen to the joy of children playing. Many people have recently commented on how they miss the sounds of working in a coffee house. These aural events help to focus the mind in specific ways.
So, what about brain entrainment in meditation applications?
Brain Entrainment in Your Meditation Practice
As mentioned above, raw entrainment audio files are not easy to listen to for extended periods of time. And while a 5-minute “catnap” of meditation can be enormously re-centering, most experts agree that 20 to 22 minutes is the minimum time to spend in meditation to make it deeply effective. So, how can we utilize audio brain entrainment to help with this kind of extended listening experience?
There is a growing scientific consensus that there are methods of combining brain entrainment with meditation techniques that are generally effective. Studies in 2018 and 2019 showed that brain entrainment audio techniques could both improve memory and lead to deeper, more relaxing sleep in participants.
Perhaps you have a long-running meditation practice. Or maybe you’re new to meditation as a whole. Whatever the case, adding brain entrainment can help to take your practice to new levels of a deep, soulful practice that is easy and immensely rewarding.
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