Sometimes when I'm lying in bed staring at the ceiling in my usual insomniac defeat, I'll open my laptop (I know, I know) and start futzing around with Ambiance ($3), one of the many apps I've downloaded in the hopes of inspiring a better night's sleep. I've dozed off to many tracks in its large library of ambient noises, ranging from "Daytime Thunderstorm" to "Rains on a Tent" to "Dishwasher." (Don't knock that last one—it's my favorite.)
But on one particular night a couple of years ago, when even the calming hum of kitchen appliances couldn't sweep me off to dreamland, I found myself in a bit of a K-hole of some of Ambiance's more out-there sounds. I curiously clicked on a track called "binaural beats" and was somewhat alarmed by a disclaimer that said that it would be undetectable unless I wore headphones; my brain would then pick up the "pulsations." I imagined some kind of sleep-inducing dog whistle, but after some reading some positive reviews to confirm that I wouldn't fry my gray matter in the process, I hit play. A vibrating humming noise filled my earbuds, and within seconds, I was woozy.
It was a new experience for me, but there has been curiosity surrounding binaural beats for centuries. (The term "binaural," which literally means "to hear with two ears," dates back as early as 1859.) When two dissonant tones below a certain frequency are played at the same time in different ears, the brain detects a third tone that has a rhythm to it. It presents like an oscillating humming sound, and it's oddly hypnotic, especially when heard in complete isolation from any outside noise or distraction. There are apps and YouTube videos devoted to the sounds, and the impact for some is profound enough that "digital drugs" is not uncommon terminology.
To be clear, the idea that these sounds can be compared to being under the influence is widely refuted. But that's not to say the effect isn't at all substantial: Scientists know that listening to these tones can impact brain activity, to the point that binaural beats are used to aid with sleep cycle research and have been shown to relieve anxiety.
As far as my own experience, that first night was certainly convincing enough for me to try it again… and again, and again. I like to use it as a Hail Mary on nights when my insomnia is at its worst—I don't like sleeping with my earbuds in, and I'd really like to avoid getting in the habit of relying on digital tools to doze off. (I still have hope that one day, I'll really be able to just fall asleep quickly without any outside help.) But I also can't remember the last time I was lying awake at 3 a.m. waiting for the dream gods to take me away—that is, since the night I stumbled upon this rad sound.
Have you ever used binaural beats before? What's your favorite method for falling asleep quickly? Click here for another simple trick to help you fall asleep faster.