About a third of the population suffers from insomnia, a condition that disrupts one’s normal sleep pattern. Insomnia can be influenced by a number of factors, including environmental and biochemical causes, stress, age, diet, and lifestyle.
In the usual sleep pattern, a person goes through three different sleep cycles that are each ordinarily about 90 minutes long. These stages are light sleep, deep sleep, and dreaming, otherwise known as repetitive eye movement (REM) sleep. In these cycles, the predominant brain wave changes from alpha waves, through beta and theta waves, into a final stage called delta waves. Delta is the most relaxed and restful condition, and has been associated with a reduction in anxiety and an increase in beneficial metabolic functions. Insomnia interferes with the body’s ability to progress through these cycles.
Awareness of the natural cycle of sleep is important because insomnia can have very serious consequences. Insomnia can last for days to years, and lack of sleep can contribute to depression, substance abuse, and other mental health problems. Every individual is different, and the sleep cycle can vary from person to person-but the basic structure stays the same.
Clinical studies have shown that sound can influence a person’s brain waves. Anyone who has used a “white noise” device to block out other sounds can vouch for sound’s effect on the brain. Sound can enhance the alert and active alpha state during the day. When used for sleep problems, it can also help a person move from that alpha state through the intermediary beta and theta states, and then into a deep delta wave state more quickly.
The original brain wave technology involved the use of an EEG and biofeedback, but it has been learned since then that the use of tones can be a lower-cost, easier, and less intimidating way of brain entrainment.
Brain entrainment technology, which helps the mind get into that delta “groove,” is effective. When you receive a sound stimulus that is in the range of brain waves, the brain’s predominant frequency will actually move towards the frequency of the perceived tone. (This is called the “frequency following response” or “aural driving.”) It seems to synchronize the two hemispheres of the brain.
Continued use of this technology can actually shorten the length of time that it takes to get from one state to another. Many people find the tones alone to be unpleasant, so other music or sounds can be mixed with them. The tones need not be loud as long as they are audible. In addition to its effect on sleep problems, research is being done on whether brain entrainment technology can be used to help with ADD, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain.
Brain entrainment technology can use one of two methods:
The first method is isochronic tones. With isochronic tones, the period of the tone is equal to the periods between the tones. People have known from ancient times that this kind of repetitive “on and off” sound can affect the mind. Drumming and clapping, for instance, have been associated with altered mental states from our earliest recorded history, and almost certainly even before that.
The second is binaural tones. Binaural tone brain entrainment technology involves the use of a different tone in each ear. This binaural effect was discovered in 1839 by Heinrich Wilhem Dove. When two tones of slightly different frequencies are presented separately using stereo headphones, the result is low-frequency pulsations in the brain.
A beating tone will be heard, as if the two sounds had mixed naturally. For the effect to occur, the tones must be below 1,000 to 1,500 hertz, and the differential between them needs to be low (under approximately 30 Hz). If either of these conditions is not met, the effect won’t happen.
The use of binaural tones to alter brain wave state does have some clinical backing, but it has some serious drawbacks as well. The primary problem with using binaural tones for the relief of sleep problems is that it requires the use of stereo headphones, since a different tone needs to be induced in each ear. Headphones are not a problem in awake or alpha states, or perhaps even in the very early stages of sleep. They can, however, be uncomfortable to use for an entire night, and that may make them more challenging to use in the deeper stages.
If headphones are used only during that initial sleep-onset period, it will be more difficult to remain asleep in the theta wave state. Moreover, the necessity of using headphones means that people with hearing difficulties in one ear will not be able to benefit from binaural tones.
By contrast, the use of isochronic tones in brain entrainment technology is easier. It does not require the use of headphones (even though headphones can be used if desired). That makes getting to sleep and staying asleep better with isochronic tones. The brain synchronizes with the beat, slowing down the racing thoughts associated with the alpha state, bringing one more rapidly into the delta state and helping a person remain in that state longer. Since delta is the deepest and most restorative state, this gives isochronic tones a distinct advantage.
Women also experience a swing in their capacity to perceive binaural tones, a swing associated with a woman’s normal monthly cycle. It peaks at certain times, and diminishes at others, making the effect sporadic. By contrast, both genders seem to experience isochronic tones effectively on a constant basis, providing less variability in isochronic tone results.
Isochronic tones can be used at a low volume, and like all forms of brain entrainment technology, can be mixed with music and sounds for a pleasant sound experience.
Brain entrainment technology can be an effective and important part of addressing sleep problems and insomnia, by synchronizing the brain’s own brain waves to that of the stimulus. Isochronic tones are easier to use because they don’t require the use of headphones, and can help more people.
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