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This has been one crazy month. Why? Because I've discovered the weird-science world of Binaural Beats. For the uninitiated (which I'm guessing you are), binaural beats are basically just two sound streams running against each other, but usually for a very specific purpose: brain wave entrainment.
The way it works is you'll have an audible base frequency, say 200Hz. Then you have a beat frequency, which usually will be below what your ear can hear, say 8Hz. You then run the carrier frequency down both sides of the stereo spectrum (and this is best on headphones), but with a slight difference on one channel from the other (in this example, 200Hz down the left, and 208Hz down the right). When you hear these played, your brain concentrates on the 8Hz difference, or whatever beat frequency you're running.
Why would you do this, you ask? Because these binaural frequencies can have strange and unique effects on your body and state of consciousness. This really is weird stuff, and the program we're looking at using is Gnaural, made by my good friend from Yale Psychology, Bret Logan. According to its Web site:
Gnaural is a multiplatform programmable binaural-beat generator, implementing the principle of binaural beats as described in the October 1973 Scientific American article “Auditory Beats in the Brain” (Gerald Oster)....In over a decade of experience with the technique, I have found it mainly useful in areas of sleep induction and “power napping”, and also as a way to bring meditation both within reach (when stress has put it out of reach) and to extend its boundaries over time.
Provided on the Web site are packages specifically for Debian; however, there are packages natively available for Ubuntu, Fedora, SUSE, Gentoo and Arch Linux. There are two versions available: Gnaural and Gnaural 2. I'm not sure what the difference is (maybe it's that they use GTK 1 and 2—they look the same to me), but Gnaural 2 is obviously the latter, so I've stuck with that. When I went to install the binaries, there were no dependency issues, so they installed right away.
If you're working with source, you'll need the -dev packages for libglade2, libportaudio and libsndfile. If you download the tarball, extract it, and enter the folder with the command line, apparently the installation is the usual case of:
$ configure $ make $ sudo make install
However, I had problems with conflicting Portaudio versions and couldn't get past the ./configure script, so better luck to you if you're compiling the source (I just stuck with the binary). Once Gnaural is installed, you can start it at the command line with:
Before you do anything, plug in some decent headphones. When Gnaural loads, you'll see a bunch of controls and a field with a strange graph. This is Gnaural's default pattern, a playlist of binaural frequencies. This default pattern is designed to be “Meditative, spiking occasionally to wakefulness”, and it has a default play time of 73.5 minutes, which safely will fit on any audio CD. If you're patient, press Play and go for it. Otherwise, you might want to scale back the runtime to something you can easily hack, say ten minutes or so (check the Scale box under Selected Datapoints X, and drag the slider left to do this).
Now, I must state from the outset, this is nothing to do with New Age stuff. Gnaural is purely scientific in its methods, and it uses only two sound waves running against each other. When it refers to meditation, although someone who meditates in the traditional sense would find use here, in this case, it's purely to do with slowing down the brain and relaxing—shutting off parts that needn't be running for the moment. This default pattern will take you through various stages of consciousness by entraining your brain to certain frequencies.
In the background, “pink noise” will be playing, which is a sort of soft static that helps drown out noise from the outside world. This can be muted if you like, which generally will make the effect of the binaural sounds stronger and more apparent. I haven't really got the space to go into much further detail here, but explore, and you'll find that you can make your own frequencies and design your own patterns, among many other features.
In terms of bodily effects, generally it will make you feel more relaxed and probably sleepy—that's the desired effect of the default pattern. However, on experiments with myself and my friends, I found I had strange REM-like eye movements and rapid blinking. One friend had momentary changes in vision. Another seemed to lose track of time. One got really sleepy. Our guitarist felt amazingly relaxed, and his brother said it felt like his ears were shrinking. And, one of my mates said it felt like his tongue was slowly disappearing!
The uses of binaural beats aren't limited purely as a tool of relaxation though. If you have a bit of a trawl around the Web site's discussion boards, you can find other presets for things, such as staying alert, helping you wake up, maintaining concentration while studying and helping travel times pass quickly.
These usually sub-audible frequencies have different effects on different people—everyone's brain is unique. I'd like to say this is harmless, but that would be irresponsible. This is still a fairly unexplored area of science. If you try it, do so at your own risk, and if you have negative effects, stop using it immediately. On the other hand, you also might find it's brilliant, soothing and love every minute of it, and some people are using binaural beats every day for this very reason. Check it out, but take care.
John Knight is the New Projects columnist for Linux Journal.
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