Using a controversial form of auditory therapy called binaural beats, which manipulate the frequency of your brain waves, a new website called SquareEater claims to help you sleep, focus, and even meditate. One writer calls the site "a tuning harp for the brain.” The beats, and their effects, are well-documented. But how legitimate are the behavioral claims, which hint at pop-neurology?
Binaural beats have been around since the late 19th century, when a Prussian scientist discovered that listening to two differing low-frequency tones (one in each ear) produces the illusion of a single tone, an artifact made up of the two frequencies. Cool, right? More than a century later, the noted Biophysicist and artist Gerald Oster observed that the beats could actually manipulate the frequency of our brain waves: our brains will try to mimic the frequency of the tones it’s hearing. Oster saw profound scientific implications in the discovery (he noted that subjects with Parkinson’s disease have trouble hearing the beats), while others would later claim anecdotally that binaural beats helped them overcome insomnia or nicotine addiction. Some even believe it induces a drug-like “trips.”
SquareEater’s founders noticed that most online brain entertainment sites were either hokey, or associated with unsavory cult groups. "Most suffered from bad interfaces, bad pricing, exaggerated claims, no visual stimulus, or at worst seem like propaganda for cultish organizations." Physical recordings, influenced by Oster’s work, are difficult to find, too. "Hippie stoners didn’t take very good care of their vinyl!," joke the designers, who spent years researching the effects of psychoacoustic effects of sound.
In a sense, SquareEater is their attempt to bring brainwave entertainment into the mainstream. The site lets you pick from its smorgasbord of binaural “squares,” or sequences, for free. Each square comes with visuals (may induce seizures, seriously, so be careful), which an adaptation of Brion Gysin’s dream machine, SquareEater tells Co.Design. "Although, there’s plenty of other psychostrobic work out there like Tony Conrad’s seminal film The Flicker." The beat frequencies themselves fall into one of four frequency categories. Alpha rates are “meditative.” Delta rates theoretically induce sleepiness. Theta beats allegedly promote contemplation, and finally, Beta rates wake you up.
My experiments with SquareEater was fun, if inconclusive. Here’s how it works. Wearing good-quality headphones, pick out one of SquareEater’s sequences (I picked Arm Melt because it sounded like the weirdest). The designers describe the 20-minute square as “their most intense yet,” with frequencies ranging from 13 to 40hz. They suggest making the room as dark as possible, and getting close to the screen (typical day for a blogger). I let the heavy, fast-paced beats wash over me for a few minutes, and I can’t say that I felt really changed--we are living in the age of Skrillex, though, so we might have a natural tolerance that previous generations don’t.
Which is not to say that squares don’t “work.” “We are often asked ‘isn’t this just based on the placebo effect?,’” write the site’s creators. “There certainly have been users whose response is largely imagined,” they confirm. “But there have been a number of studies published in legitimate scientific journals drawing a correlation between binaural beats and brainwave functions. While the research is insufficient at this point to fully understand how the brain reacts with entrainment, a variety of responses have been well documented.” They list a short bibliography of sources on their about page.