Binaural Beats: An Investigation on Creativity Enhancement

Creativity is an important skill in the human cognitive construct, it is useful in art and science and essential in day-to-day life. Unfortunately, however, research into creativity is rather cluttered and mechanistic models about how creativity might work are not available. It is thus not surprising that there is no single, widely accepted definition of creativity. What can be said, though, is that many cognitive processes seem to be involved, and that sub-functions underlying creativity depend on both state and trait characteristics. Of all the processes involved in creativity, Guilford (1950, 1967) identifies divergent and convergent thinking as its two main ingredients. Together with insight (a possible sub-component of convergent thinking), these are nowadays still considered the most important processes in creativity.

Both divergent and convergent thinking have been assumed to be influenced by positive mood but the mechanism underlying this impact remains unclear. Based on the observation that schizophrenic patients, who suffer from an overdose of the neurotransmitter dopamine, sometimes exhibit extraordinary creative performances, some researchers have assumed a strong link between creativity and dopamine. Indeed, positive-going mood is accompanied by phasic changes in the production and availability of dopamine in the mesolimbic and nigrostriatal systems of the brain, which again is likely to facilitate cognitive search operations and related processes underlying creative behavior. If so, factors or techniques that are likely to modulate dopamine production or transmission could be suspected to have an impact on cognitive operations underlying creativity.

One phenomenon that has been suspected to propagate creativity is known under the name of “binaural beats”, an auditory illusion that can be considered a kind of cognitive or neural entrainment. This phenomenon has encouraged sweeping claims about mind enhancement, and some websites even went as far as calling the illusion a “digital drug”. While binaural beats indeed seem to exert some effect on cognitive functioning and mood and on neural firing patterns in the brain, it is as yet unclear how they do so. The binaural-beat illusion arises when two tones of a slightly different frequency are each presented to different ears. For instance, when a tone of 335 Hz is presented to the right ear and a tone of 345 Hz to the left ear, this results in a subjectively perceived binaural beat of 10 Hz. Hence, instead of hearing two different tones, most individuals will hear just one tone that fluctuates in frequency or loudness: a beat.

How exactly the brain produces the perception of these beats is unclear, but the reticular activation system and the inferior colliculus seem to play a role. In animals, binaural-beat producing stimulus conditions have been shown to produce particular neural patterns of phase locking, or synchronization, beginning in the auditory system and propagating to the inferior colliculus. Even though the neural response to objectively presented beats is stronger, binaural beats seem to elicit similar neural responses in both humans and, suggesting that the illusion arises through pathways normally associated with binaural sound detection. As in humans binaural beats have been found to affect cognitive functioning and moodand responses to binaural beats are detectable in the human EEG, it can be assumed that neuronal phase locking spreads from the auditory system and the inferior colliculus over the cortex. A spreading pattern of neuronal activation and synchronization might affect short- and long-distance communication in the brain, processes which depend on neuronal synchronization and, presumably, on particular neurotransmitter systems, thus affecting cognitive processing.

If binaural beats affect cognition through neural synchronization, it is possible that the frequency of the beat matters. For instance, short-range communication within brain areas is often associated with neural synchronization in the gamma frequency, while long-range communication is associated with neuronal phase locking in the slower frequency bands. Moreover, a variety of frequency bands have been considered to represent the “messenger frequency” of cognitive-control signals. For instance, synchronization in the gamma frequency range seems to play a role in the top-down control of memory retrieval, which should be relevant for many creativity tasks. Also of interest, phase locking in the alpha band has been associated with lower cortical arousal in general and enhanced top-down control in creativity-related performance in particular. Especially divergent thinking seems to be associated with alpha wave synchronization. It could therefore be reasoned that inducing a state of lower cortical arousal by presenting people with alpha frequency binaural beats temporarily increases their performance on a divergent thinking task. Given that the available evidence highlights the alpha and gamma bands as possible messenger frequencies of control signals in creativity-related tasks, researchers investigated whether binaural beats presented at these two frequencies might affect performance in convergent- and divergent-thinking tasks—as compared to a control condition.

Source: Reedijk, S., Bolders, A., and Hommel, B. (2013)

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