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The effect of binaural beat stimulation on sustained attention

Abstract

Binaural beats have been used as a way of modifying cognition via auditory stimulation. A recent meta-analysis suggests that binaural beat stimulation can have a positive effect on attention (Garcia-Argibay et al., Psychologische Forschung 83:1124–1136, 2019a, Psychological Research Psychologische Forschung 83:357–372, 2019b), with the sample-weighted average effect size being about .58. This is an intriguing and potentially useful finding, both theoretically and practically. In this study, we focus on sustained attention. We delivered beta-frequency (16 Hz) binaural beat stimulation during a sustained attention task. In “Experiment 1”, reaction times were faster under beat stimulation than control stimulation in a between-subjects design. However, the effect was modest in magnitude, and model comparisons using Bayes Factors were indiscriminate between including and excluding the effect from the model. We followed this initial experiment with two concurrently administered follow-up experiments. In “Experiment 2”, we added thought probes to measure any changes in task engagement associated with binaural beat stimulation. “Experiment 2” revealed a different effect from “Experiment 1”: participants in the binaural beat condition exhibited a shallower vigilance decrement. However, the beat stimulation did not affect the thought probes responses. Combining data across the two experiments indicated rather strong evidence against the hypothesis that beta-frequency binaural beats can augment sustained attention, either via a general speeding of responding or a mitigation of the vigilance decrement. Finally, in “Experiment 3”, we investigated whether pupillary measures of arousal and/or task engagement would be affected by binaural beat stimulation. There was no evidence for such effects. Overall, we did not observe any consistent evidence that binaural beat stimulation can augment sustained attention or its subjective and physiological correlates.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    As part of our preregistration for Experiment 1, we also stated that we would analyze the RTs with ex-Gaussian parameter estimates. Specifically, we extracted three parameters from the distribution of each individual’s RTs: µ, which represents the point of central tendency of the distribution, which represents the degree of variability in the distribution, and which represents the length of the tail of the distribution. In prior research with the psychomotor vigilance task, motivational incentives have been demonstrated to specifically affect µ (Brewer et al., 2017), whereas other experiments, like putting participants in acute pain have shown specific effects on \(\tau\) (Robison et al., 2021a). These results are reported for Experiment 1 to maintain the integrity of our preregistration.

  2. 2.

    The reported effect size is a bit larger than the effect size we used to perform the power analysis (d = 0.29) because we did not screen for outliers as stringently in our first analysis of the data as we did here.

  3. 3.

    Participants were run in groups (maximum size 8 participants), and signed up for the study ahead of time. We allowed participants who had signed up before we reached our cutoff to complete the study, and we retained their data.

  4. 4.

    A probe appeared every 16 trials. Because of the randomization of wait times, this meant a probe appeared roughly once every 100 s.

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Acknowledgements

The data from Experiment 1 were collected as part of an Honors Thesis completed by author M.O. for the Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University. We would like to thank Stephen Goldinger for providing the eye-tracking equipment necessary to complete this project. Authors M.K.R., C.B., and G.A.B. were supported by National Science Foundation grant 1632327 during the data collection phases of this project

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The data from “Experiment 1” were collected as part of an Honors Thesis completed by author M.O. for the Barrett Honors College at Arizona State University. We would like to thank Stephen Goldinger for providing the eye-tracking equipment necessary to complete this project. Authors M.K.R., C.B., and G.A.B. were supported by National Science Foundation grant 1,632,327 during the data collection phases of this project.

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Correspondence to Matthew K. Robison.

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Robison, M.K., Obulasetty, M., Blais, C. et al. The effect of binaural beat stimulation on sustained attention. Psychological Research (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-021-01524-3

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