STUDIA PSYCHOLOGICA, 57, 2015, 2 135
THE EFFECT OF BINAURAL BEATS ON
WORKING MEMORY CAPACITY
Jakub KRAUS1, Michaela PORUBANOVÁ2
1Katedra psychologie, Faku lta sociálních studií, Masarykova Univerzita
Joštova 10, 602 00 Brno, Czech Republic
2 Farmingdale State College - SUNY, Farmingdale, New York, USA
Abstract: The research explored the effect of binaural beats on working memory capacity (WMC).
When the bina ural beat beats with the frequency tha t corresponds to the state of alpha wave
range, then it is believed that the overall brain activity changes accordin gly. Brainwave activity
within the alpha range has been generally correlated with many cognitive functio ns along with
working memory improvement. Therefore, in this study it is assumed that binaural beat corre-
sponding to alpha wave rang e will enhance subsequently WMC. In the following study, partici-
pants wer e divi ded into two groups. One group underwent a binaural beat stimula tion while
listening to the sound of the sea. The other grou p was listening solely to the sound of the sea
without bina ura l beat stimulation. We measured baseline and post-stimulation working memory
capacity using the OSPAN method. As expected, only participants from the binau ral beat group
showed an improvement in WMC.
Key wo rds: binaural beat s, working memory capacity, Operation Spa n Task, alpha frequency,
It has been suggested that cognitive and
executive functioning is accompanied by
specific brain wave oscillations. Overall, the
brain activity within alpha rhythm (7.5 – 12.5
Hz in adults) has been associated with vigi-
lance, inhibitory processes, attention, work-
ing memory, perceptual abilities and infor-
mation processing speed (Braboszcz &
Delorme, 2011; Clark et al., 2004; Freunberger
et al., 2011; Lachat et al., 2012; Oprisan, 2004;
Palva & Palva, 2007; VanRullen & Koch,
2003). For instance, an increase in the capac-
ity of working memory (a greater number of
retained and recalled items) was accompa-
nied by a higher amplitude of alpha oscilla-
tions (Sauseng et al., 2009). Also, according
to some authors, the oscillations in alpha
rhythm indirectly enhance performance in
working memory capacity in such a way that
they filter out irrelevant information and pre-
vent disr uptions caused by conflicting
stimuli (Klimesch et al., 2007; Rihs et al., 2007;
Tuladhar et al., 2007).
Other studies looked at the extent to which
the induction of specific brain waves can al-
ter subsequent cognition. One way of en-
suring induction of electrical activity in the
brain is through binaural beats (BB) (e.g.,
Kasprzak, 2011; Nozaradan et al., 2011; On et
al., 2013). BB are defined as subjective audi-
Ac knowledgm ents
The authors thank Davi d Brock er for hel ping
wit h the rea lizat io n and administr ation of the
136 STUDIA PSYCHOLOGICA, 57, 2015, 2
tory sensations caused by presenting tones
of slightly different frequencies separately
to each ear. As a result, a listener perceives a
sound with an amplitude that changes with
a frequency equal to the difference of fre-
quency in the presented tones (Kasprzak,
2011), and these two frequencies are inte-
grated at the cortical level into the above-
mentioned binaural beat (Ozimek, 2002). Spe-
cifically, BB can alter the functioning of the
reticular formation, a neural network system
in the brainstem responsible for regulation
of vigilance, concentration and attention
(Wahbeh, Calabrese, & Zwickey, 2007). Bin-
aural beats stimulation can, through changes
in the reticular formation, enhance the pro-
cessing of presented information (Wahbeh,
Calabrese, & Zwickey, 2007). Following this
logic, if the difference in the frequencies of
the two tones, which produce the resulting
binaural beat, corresponds to a certain
brainwave state (e.g., 130 Hz – 110 Hz = 10
Hz = alpha range – 7.5 – 12.5 Hz), then the
overall brain activity should subsequently
maintain that state (Sornson, 1999). Some re-
searchers call this process hemispheric syn-
chronization and assume that, by means of
exposing an individual to binaural beat, the
electrical activity of both hemispheres merges
to one synchronized activity with an overall
frequency that represents the difference of
the two originally presented tones (e.g., Fos-
ter, 1990; Kennerly, 1994).
Several studies have looked at the possible
effects of binaural beats within the alpha
range on cognitive abilities. A significant
improvement in cognitive processing, as
measured by the Stroop Effect exercise, was
found by a BB stimulation of 10.2 Hz fre-
quency (Cruceanu & Rotarescu, 2013).
Carter and Russell (1993) exposed 8 to 12 year
old boys with learning disabilities to 8-week
long 10 and 18 Hz BB stimulation sessions,
and they found an improvement in Raven’s
progressive matrices and in a subtest of au-
ditory sequential memory (Carter & Russell,
1993). McMurray (2006) assessed the effect
of 7 and 11 Hz BB on alpha brainwave activ-
ity, working memory, and attention in healthy
elderly people, who are known for experienc-
ing gradual decrease in physiological alpha
activity. The 2 minutes exposure to BB re-
sulted in an altered electrical activity in the
brain. Concretely speaking, the changes oc-
curred within the alpha brainwave activity.
Moreover there were improvements in For-
ward and Backward Digit Span Memory
Tasks, and in a version of the Continuous
Performance Task. Contrary to the previous
results, Wahbeh et al. (2007) documented a
significant deterioration in the Rey Auditory
Verbal Learning Test (RAVLT), as a conse-
quence of stimulation by a 7 Hz frequency
BB in durations of 30 minutes. It thus appears
that BB’s possible positive effects on cogni-
tive functions depend on many factors.
These factors may be the specific frequency
of BB; the targeted population - because it is
known that older people have different qual-
ity of brainwave activity than, e.g., young-
sters (Bazanova & Aftanas, 2008; Clark et al.,
2004), and the tests used to detect the pos-
sible changes in working memory capacity.
Based on the research showing a positive
impact of alpha-range BB on cognitive func-
tioning, specifically attention, auditory se-
quential memory, working memory, working
memory storage, reasoning ability, cognitive
processing and hemispheric synchroniza-
tion, (Carter & Russell, 1993; Cruceanu &
Rotarescu, 2013; Foster, 1990; Kennerly, 1994;
McMurray, 2006) as well as on the wealth of
research documenting the important role of
alpha brain wave activity on vigilance, in-
STUDIA PSYCHOLOGICA, 57, 2015, 2 137
hibitory processes, attention, filtering out
irrelevant information working memory, the
visuo-spatial component of working memory,
perceptual abilities and information process-
ing speed (Braboszcz & Delorme, 2011; Clark
et al., 2004; Engle et al., 1999a; Freunberger
et al., 2011; Klimesch et al., 2007; Lachat et
al., 2012; Oprisan, 2004; Palva & Palva, 2007;
Rihs et al., 2007; Sauseng et al., 2009;
Tuladhar et al., 2007; VanRullen & Koch,
2003), we believe that BB of a frequency that
corresponds to the alpha range of brain ac-
tivity has a temporary effect on working
In our study, subjects were exposed to 9.55
Hz BB stimulation while we measured their
working memory capacity through the Au-
tomated Operation Span Task (AOSPAN).
The goal was to explore possible temporary
improvements in working memory as a con-
sequence of alpha-range BB stimulation.
In total, 50 university/college students
participated in the study. Each participant
was randomly assigned to either an experi-
mental or control group. Ten participants
were rejected from further analysis for either
failing to reach an 85% limit of correctly
solved mathematical operations in AOSPAN
or achieving 0 in the Ospan score. The rejec-
tion of these participants is fully in accor-
dance with the instructions from the authors
of this method Unsworth, Heitz, Schrock &
The final sample of participants included
40 students (M Age = 21.63 years; 29 (72.5%)
were women) with an effect size of d = 1.06
and statistical power of 0.95.
The experiment was approved by an Insti-
tutional Review Board (IRB) at Farmingdale
State College, NY, USA.
Automated Operation Span Task
The Operation Span Task measures work-
ing memory capacity as defined by Engle et
al. (1999a). Unsworth, Heitz, Schrock and
Engle (2005) developed a computer-admin-
istered AOSPAN which works automatically.
The test consists of a training period and
the actual test. The training allows for the
elimination of the testing effect.
During the task, a person is asked to retain
randomly presented series of 3 to 7 defined
letters (F, H, J, K, N, P, Q, R, S, T and Y). The
letters are presented one at a time for 800
milliseconds. After the presentation of each
letter, a simple mathematical equation ap-
pears on the screen. Here is an example equa-
tion: (2*3) + 7 = ?
The participant has to assess whether the
proposed solution is correct. The mathemati-
cal operation is presented to each partici-
pant for a specific amount of seconds calcu-
lated from his/her individual tempo as mea-
sured during his/her individual rehearsal task
+ 2 SDs. Afterwards, a letter comes up for
800 ms. This process is presented anywhere
between 3 and 7 times. Afterwards, a set of
letters (a table of all possible letters) is pre-
sented to the participant. The participant has
to choose the letters that were presented in
The whole task consists of 3 series of each
set size. The set sizes range from 3 to 7 let-
ters plus the mathematical operations. In to-
tal, 75 letters and 75 mathematical operations
are administered to the participant.
138 STUDIA PSYCHOLOGICA, 57, 2015, 2
Furthermore, the results are obtained only
from those participants who meet the 85%
accuracy criterion in solving the mathemati-
cal operations. This criterion serves for the
purpose of dealing with the possible prob-
lem of participants concentrating only on
remembering the letters while ignoring the
Figure 1. Illustration of AOSPAN task. At first, participant is presented with a mathematical
operation. After solving of the operation, participant clicks with a mouse button and an
offered answer displays on screen. If one thinks that the offered answer is right, than he/she
selects “true”, if not than he/she selects “false”. Subsequently, in the middle of the screen
appears a letter which remains there just for 800 milliseconds. Then the program offers a
matrix of letters, where the participant has to select letters, which he or she had to remember
in the correct order. At last, participant is presented with a feedback, where he or she finds
out about his/hers success in the concrete sequence (remembered letters and correctly
answered mathematical operations). The illustration of the AOSPAN task presented here is
adapted from Unsworth et al. (2005).
STUDIA PSYCHOLOGICA, 57, 2015, 2 139
After completing the AOSPAN task, two
scores related to the assessment of working
memory capacity were computed.
The first score, the Ospan score, has an
absolute scoring method, and it represents
the sum of all correctly recalled sets of let-
ters in the correct order. So, for instance, if a
participant correctly recalls 3 letters in a set
size of 3, 4 letters in a set size of 4, and 3
letters in a set size of 5, his/her Ospan score
would be 7 (3 + 4 + 0) (Unsworth et al., 2005).
The second additional score reflects the
total number of errors made solving the math-
ematical operations. This score consists of
“speed errors” and “accuracy errors”. Speed
errors are errors made due to the participant
not solving the task within the time limit. The
accuracy errors score reflects incorrectly
For the purposes of this study, the score
used most in the analysis was the first Ospan
score. It is a score, which is stable in terms of
test-retest reliability when repeating the test
after few minutes (r = 0.77 – 0.79; Turley-
Ames & Whitfield, 2002), weeks (0.82; Klein
& Fiss, 1999), or months (0.76; Klein & Fiss,
1999). Other sources in relation to this score
present even higher test-retest reliability
(r = 0.83; Unsworth et al., 2005).
Further, when comparing two versions of
the OSPAN task, which differ in the diffi-
culty of the mathematic operations, rela-
tively high correlations ranging from 0.7 to
0.8 were observed (Conway & Engle, 1996;
Lehto, 1996). This information is important,
because in our study, participants had to
solve two AOSPAN tasks during a short
period of time.
In this study, the AOSPAN task used was
identical to that which was created and de-
scribed by Unsworth et al., (2005) and was
scripted in a MATLAB program (version 8.1).
Binaural Beats Stimulation
As stated above, BB is defined as a sub-
jective auditory sensation, which occurs
when two tones of slightly different fre-
quency are presented separately to each ear.
A listener then experiences a resultant sound
with an amplitude which changes with a fre-
quency equal to the difference in the fre-
quencies of presented tones (Kasprzak,
2011). Two tones of the frequencies of 230
and 220.45 Hz were generated through the
Audacity Program via stereo headphones
presenting a different tone to each ear. The
frequency of the BB is equal to the differ-
ence between the used frequencies (9.55 Hz
- alpha range).
Two different recordings were created.
The first contained a BB at the frequency of
9.55 Hz, plus an overlapping sound (the
sound of the sea). This overlapping sound
is important so that the participants do not
fully perceive the BB. Similar overlapping
sounds are common in BB literature (e.g.,
Wahbeh et al., 2007). Further, the use of neu-
tral overlapping sounds (sounds of rain,
wind, water) seem more appropriate than any
recording meant for meditation, relaxation or
other aims, which may themselves cause
changes in cognition (e.g., Hodges, 2010;
Pelletier, 2004; Rickard, Wong, & Velik, 2012).
The second recording included only the
above-mentioned sound of the sea without
the BB component. Both recordings lasted
12 minutes and were, with the exception of
the presence/absence of the BB, identical.
In McMurray’s (2006) experiment, partici-
pants could not distinguish between two
such recordings, though in her and other BB
studies, the authors do not explicitly describe
the exact volume of the BBs in terms of their
140 STUDIA PSYCHOLOGICA, 57, 2015, 2
total inaudibility. None of the participants in
this experiment reported an awareness of such
sounds when asked after the experiment took
All participants signed an Informed Con-
sent form and indicated no history of sei-
zures and epilepsy. Participants were told
they would be involved in a memory study
while being exposed to a break in which they
would listen to music, and they were not
aware of the purpose of the study.
The baseline measure of the AOSPAN was
obtained at the beginning of the experiment.
After the first completion of the AOSPAN,
participants were randomly assigned to ei-
ther music with a BB or music without a BB.
All participants then listened to a 12 minute-
long recording of one of the recordings. Af-
ter those 12 minutes they were asked to re-
take the AOSPAN.
Both the experimental and control group
were exposed to the same procedure with the
exception of the inclusion of BB in the music
in the experimental condition. Completing the
experiment took approximately 50 minutes.
We were interested in understanding the
effect of BB stimulation on the Ospan score.
The baseline Ospan score was subtracted
from the post-BB/music exposure Ospan
score. The resulting score provides informa-
tion about the change in Ospan score as a
result of exposure to the music/BB. For clar-
ity, this score will be referred to as SOS
(Substracted Ospan Score).
Additionally, the total number of math-
ematical errors in the AOSPAN was used in
the analysis. This score was obtained by
subtracting the total number of mathemati-
cal errors obtained in the first AOSPAN task
from the total number of mathematical errors
The mean differences in SOS between groups
expe rim e ntal contro l
Mea n SOS
Diagram 1. The diagram shows mean differences in SOS between groups
STUDIA PSYCHOLOGICA, 57, 2015, 2 141
obtained in the second AOSPAN task. The
score informs about the improvement/dete-
rioration in making arithmetic errors after
participants completed the second AOSPAN
task. This score will be further labeled as
SNME (Substracted Number of Mathemati-
In order to com pare differences in
AOSPAN scores between the experimental
and control condition, an independent t-test
The variances of the SOS score in the ex-
perimental and control groups were equal,
F(1, 38) = 2.16, p > 0.05. On average, partici-
pants from the experimental group received
a higher SOS (M = 4.60; SE = 1.95) than the
participants from the control group (M =
-2.45; SE = 2.55). This difference was statisti-
cally significant t(38) = 2.20, p = 0.017 (one-
tailed); representing a medium-sized effect
r = 0.34.
Participants in the experimental condition
did not differ from those in the control con-
dition in terms of SNME; M = - 0.20; SE= 0.72
versus M= - 0.15, SE= 0.65., t(38)= -0.05, p >
The goal of the study was to observe the
effect of exposure to BB on working memory
capacity. As suggested by many studies,
BBs corresponding to alpha brain waves can
positively influence cognitive processing,
namely attention, auditory sequential
memory, working memory, working memory
storage, and reasoning ability (Carter &
Russell, 1993; Cruceanu & Rotarescu, 2013;
Foster, 1990; Kennerly, 1994; McMurray,
The results show that a BB of the fre-
quency of 9.55 Hz – which is a representa-
tion of the alpha frequency range of the brain
activity – had a temporary positive effect on
working memory capacity in our sample of
healthy, adult university students.
Lim, Quevenco, and Kwok (2013) state that
in tasks testing higher cognitive functions,
such as working memory, increased alpha
activity is positively associated with quality
performance (Doppelmayr et al., as cited in
Lim, Quevenco, & Kwok, 2013). In the re-
search of Lim et al. (2013), lower delta and
theta activities, which are associated with
fatigue, were recorded in participants who
were given a break in comparison to those
participants who were not. DeLuca (2005a)
defines fatigue as a result of intense and last-
ing exertion caused by cognitive effort. The
break prevented the effects of fatigue and
allowed participants to relax. Several stud-
ies showed a connection between alpha
brainwave activity and relaxed states (e.g.,
Lagopoulos et al., 2009; Newberg et al., 2001;
Stinson & Arthur, 2013). Lim et al. (2013) ob-
served improved performance in an auditory
oddball task (sustained attention and its ca-
pacity) in participants who underwent the
break, while the performance of the control
group deteriorated. These individual differ-
ences were correlated on one hand with the
decreasing delta and theta activity, and on
the other hand with increase in alpha activ-
ity during the break (Lim et al., 2013).
In our research, participants were similarly
provided a break from a cognitively demand-
ing task, i.e., working memory capacity task.
The break was represented by the 12-min-
utes of listening to the sounds of the sea,
during which the participants were sup-
posed to relax. In our case, the break influ-
enced each participant differently; in those
exposed to BB, we assume it supported the
alpha synchronization. Therefore, based on
142 STUDIA PSYCHOLOGICA, 57, 2015, 2
the previous research (Klimesch et al., 2007;
Lagopoulos et al., 2009; Newberg et al., 2001;
Rihs et al., 2007; Stinson & Arthur, 2013;
Tuladhar et al., 2007), we assume that the
alpha synchronization might have induced a
state of relaxation, which might have helped
to filter out irrelevant information and im-
proved participants’ performance in working
memory tasks while performance of the con-
trol group deteriorated.
The results of our research support the
findings of McMurray (2006) and Carter
and Russell (1993). McMurray (2006) had
older adults listen to a 2-minute track includ-
ing alternately BBs of 7 and 11 Hz and found
a significant improvement in their attention
and working memory. Carter and Russel
(1993) explored the effects of BBs on vari-
ous cognitive processes in boys with learn-
ing deficits. During several 25-minute ses-
sions, the participants were alternately stimu-
lated by audiovisual, as well as solely by
BBs with frequencies of 10 and 18 Hz. Boys
exposed to BB stimulation showed an in-
creased performance in Raven’s progressive
matrices and in a subtest of auditory sequen-
tial memory. Huang and Charyton (2008) in-
vestigated and evaluated the data from all of
the available research studies which dealt
with brain stimulation of any form (not just
BB). They came to the conclusion that just
one session of such stimulation may be ben-
eficial for immediate states of memory, atten-
tion, stress, pain, and migraine (Huang &
Charyton, 2008). Our work is consistent with
The results of our work expand on the
above-mentioned findings. To the best of our
knowledge, this was the first time a BB of the
frequency of 9.55 Hz was experimentally stud-
ied in the context of working memory em-
ploying the Operation Span Task (AOSPAN).
Unsworth et al. (2005) compared the score
of 78 participants who solved the AOSPAN
task two times over several days. Within the
Ospan score, he observed an increase of
about 1 point. On the other hand, the results
from the control group in our study suggest
just the opposite trend. The participants’
scores deteriorated as a result of exposure
to only music. A possible explanation could
be the above-mentioned effect of fatigue.
Increasing fatigue subsequently affects the
degradation of performance in cognitive
tasks (Kato et al., 2009; Lorist, 2008). Partici-
pants spent approximately 40 minutes from
the total duration of the experiment solving
the AOSPAN tasks. However, participants
exposed to BB just for 12 minutes, showed
an improvement in their working memory
capacity on average by 4.6 points in their
As mentioned above, our participants
showed an average 4.6 points improvement
after the second AOSPAN task as a result of
BB stimulation. If we think again of the scor-
ing method used, we will find that individu-
als from the experimental group improved by
about one set from the total of 15 sets. Since
in the test sets of 3 to 7 letters (= 3 to 7 points)
were used and the points were gained only
when participant answered the whole set
correctly, we can assume that the above-
mentioned 4.6 points represent approximately
one set. This represents an improvement of
almost 7%, which is a relatively decent
growth since the participants were young
and healthy university students whose cog-
nitive functioning is presumably at its apex.
One could surmise that patients with memory
deficits could show even greater improve-
ment. In terms of the control group, we may
assume that this group either remained un-
changed, by means of measured perfor-
STUDIA PSYCHOLOGICA, 57, 2015, 2 143
mance, or deteriorated by the maximum of
one set on average (deterioration of 2.45
points). Thus, the ultimate difference be-
tween the experimental and control group
represents the difference of 1-2 correctly re-
called sets, roughly a range of 7 – 13 %. While
the experimental group improved by an av-
erage of slightly more than one remembered
letter, the control group deteriorated by al-
most 3 letters in total. The overall mean dif-
ference between the two groups was, thus
on average, 4 correctly recalled letters.
For an assessment of working memory ca-
pacity, it seems crucial to be able to recall the
whole set of letters. For a participant to be
successful in this task, s/he should be able
to actively navigate his/her attention, and to
store and activate the presented information
(letters) while solving each set (Engle,
Tuholski, & Kane, 1999a).
Our results illustrate that although the par-
ticipants from the experimental group im-
proved in their capacity of working memory,
their performance in solving mathematical
operations was unaffected by the exposure
to the BB. However, one should not expect
a significant improvement in the mathemati-
cal task performance since it serves as a dis-
tractor or filler in the controlled attention.
Although overall capacity of working mem-
ory may be improved by BB stimulation, the
processing of distracting stimuli such as solv-
ing of the mathematical operations probably
remains unchanged, as this is not the indica-
tor of working memory capacity in its own
right but it is just a method to challenge/
measure it (Engle et al., 1999a).
The results of our research indicate that
the BB may positively affect retention,
attentional control, the storage and the acti-
vation of information, which contribute to
memorization of that information.
It would be interesting to see what results
would be achieved by individuals with
memory or other cognitive deficits, older in-
dividuals or people without university/col-
lege experiences. From the point of external
validity, it is important that any other future
research in this area should be realized in as
heterogeneous population as possible. Also,
it would be appropriate to extend the time
period between the solving of the two
AOSPAN tasks to some extent, so that the
potential effect of fatigue or an immediate
training effect would be minimized.
The results of our study illustrate that BB
frequencies corresponding to alpha range of
brain activity had a temporary positive ef-
fect on the capacity of working memory. Par-
ticipants undergoing a 12-minute BB stimu-
lation of 9.55 Hz frequency, achieved a sig-
nificant increase in the capacity of their work-
ing memory in comparison to a control group
which was not exposed to BB stimulation.
Received October 7, 2014
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VPLYV BINAURAL BEATS NA KAPACITU PRACOVNEJ PAMÄTE
J. K r a u s, M. P o r u b a n o v á
Sú hr n: Výskum sa zaobera l vplyvom binaural beats na ka pacitu pracovnej pamäte (WMC) .
Pokiaľ aplikovaný binau ral beat zodpov edá frekvenčnému stavu, ktorý je chara kteristický pre
alfa frekvenčný rozsah mozgových vĺn, tak sa predpokladá, že by aj celk ová mozgová aktivita
mala následne v určitej miere udržiavať tento stav. Mozgová aktivita v rámci alfa rozsahu je vo
vše obecnost i ko relov aná s vi acerými kognitívn ymi funkcia mi, medzi inými aj s pracov nou
pamäťou. V nasledujúcej práci je preto vyslovený predpoklad, že binaural beat o alfa frekvencii
by následne mohol posilniť WMC. V tejto štúdii boli participanti rozdelení do dvoch skupín. Prvá
skupina podstúpila binaural beat stimuláciu počas počúvania zvukov mora. Druhá počúvala len
zvuky mora bez binaural beat stimulácie. Pomocou testovej metódy Operation span task (OSPAN)
sme merali východiskovú a post-stimulačnú kapacitu pracovnej pamäte. V súlade s očakávaniami,
len parti cipan ti, ktorí podstúpili binaural beat stimuláciu, preukázali zlepšenie v rámci WMC.