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Connecting yourself to a computer is now apparently all you need to do to get high. That is according to some users and promoters of a phenomenon known as “digital drugs”. These consist of specially designed audio tracks easily found on the internet for free, or even purchased in mp3 or CD form.
Now, we know that music can influence mood, but can it really lead to significant changes in brain state? Perhaps. These so-called digital drugs are not merely music, they involve the generation of something called binaural beats. These are rhythmic illusions created through the presentation of sounds with different frequencies to the left and right ears.
The principle, although it has not been thoroughly researched, is that a difference between these two frequencies – say 30 Hertz – will lead to a brainwave state approximating the same frequency.
Brainwaves are the synchronised electrical pulses given off by the neurons in our brains, and are measurable using sensors placed on the scalp. It is believed that certain frequencies relate to certain states of consciousness, such as meditative states.
Some of the claims made by the tracks sold as digital drugs online are implausibly outlandish, and claim to mimic the effects of known illicit drugs. The digital highs found on Youtube have titles such as acid trip, marijuana high, opium, cocaine dose and magic mushroom.
This naming system is likely to have more to do with sales technique as with the properties of the beats themselves. Whatever effect they may have, it seems highly unlikely they would create specific analogues for known drug effects, turning this kind of labeling into marketing hype at its worst.
Some years ago, digital drugs hit the headlines after some teenagers from a school in Oklahoma claimed to be getting high listening to some mp3s. Parents and teachers expressed alarm at this trend. The parents of the children were afraid of the physical, psychological and social implications. In addition, some feared they might act as “gateway drugs”.
Users claim to use binaural beats for diverse purposes including meditation, concentration aids, hypnosis, relaxation and sexual stimulation. These has been some research into binaural beats can have a positive psychological impact in improving relaxation, mental performance, concentration and mood. However, there is certainly no academic evidence to suggest effects on the brain of the same order of that created by the ingestion of recreational drugs.
Maybe in the future we will be able to connect our brains to a virtual reality which will be able to provide us with sophisticated altered states of mind. But for now, the technology, if we can even call it that, seems pretty limited.
Lane, J., Kasian, S., Owens, J., & Marsh, G. (1998). Binaural Auditory Beats Affect Vigilance Performance and Mood Physiology & Behavior, 63 (2), 249-252 DOI: 10.1016/S0031-9384(97)00436-8
Lavallee CF, Koren SA, & Persinger MA (2011). A quantitative electroencephalographic study of meditation and binaural beat entrainment. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.), 17 (4), 351-5 PMID: 21480784
Wahbeh H, Calabrese C, & Zwickey H (2007). Binaural beat technology in humans: a pilot study to assess psychologic and physiologic effects. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.), 13 (1), 25-32 PMID: 17309374
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