Pssst, Hey Kid. . . the First One’s Free

by Whatsblem the Pro

They even have digital Ex-Lax -- IMAGE: Oda-Dik

They even have digital Ex-Lax — IMAGE: Oda-Dik

Los Angeles television station KTLA ran a news item this week giving parents everywhere something new to worry about: that their children might be getting blitzed out of their young minds. . . on digital drugs.

“From online predators to simply too much screen time, we’ve all heard about the potential dangers of the Internet and our children. . . but have you heard of something called ‘i-dosing?’ Parents warn it’s an alarming new trend where kids could be using their iPads and iPods to get intoxicated. They’re called digital drugs. They’re free — accessible — and legal. But do these beats alter the brain the same way street drugs do?”

Digital technonarcotics? It sounds like something straight out of science fiction, or the weirder elements at Burning Man. . . even if – especially if – it’s just a silly prank.

KTLA isn’t the first TV newsroom to trot this one out, and surely won’t be the last. Back in July of 2010, Wired ran a write-up about Oklahoma’s City’s Channel 9 News reporting the same story, warning parents that “digital drugs” – a euphemistic name for something science calls “binaural beats” – could be a gateway to doing real drugs. The Daily Mail, second-most popular newspaper in the United Kingdom, also picked up the story.

“Kids are going to flock to these [web] sites just to see what it is about and it can lead them to other places,” said Mark Woodward, who Channel 9 identified as a spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Citing the use of digital drugs as an indication of willingness to experiment with real narcotics, Woodward was clearly sounding an alarm.

“So that’s why we want parents to be aware of what sites their kids are visiting and not just dismiss this as something harmless on the computer,” he elaborated. “If you want to reach these kids, save these kids and keep these kids safe, parents have to be aware. They’ve got to take action.”

Gosh, Mr. Woodward! That sounds serious!

Not surprisingly, both KTLA’s coverage and the Channel 9 piece were a bit on the lurid side. The Channel 9 reporter actually claimed that “websites are luring kids with free downloads” in an attempt to equate downloading an mp3 file with a visit from that perennial bugaboo of straitlaced parents everywhere, the schoolyard drug dealer who tells kids that the first one is free. Goddamn the pusher man!

The less conservative among us who have actually had some experience with recreational drugs may be tempted to speculate that kids who try to get wasted by wearing headphones are probably already partying it up to some extent, and are simply trying to score their drugs for free. Regardless, it seems prudent to ignore the alarmist tone and the dark warnings about so-called “gateway drugs,” and take all this with a large grain of salt and tongue pressed firmly into cheek. Still, one has to wonder. . . is there any truth at all to any of this talk about getting high on mp3 files?

If you’re willing to abandon all skepticism and believe whatever you’re told by J. Random Internetperson, then the sheer number of web sites touting binaural beats and YouTube videos of teenagers allegedly exhibiting dramatic reactions to them might make a true believer out of you. If, however, you prefer actual science as an information source over the dark and vast wellsprings of mis- and disinformation that make up the bulk of the Internet, you might be disappointed; as shocking as it sounds, people on the Internet sometimes do say things that are not true. Some of them believe what they’re saying; some do it just for fun; some are trying to sell you something.

So what is a binaural beat?

Heinrich Wilhelm Dove

Heinrich Wilhelm Dove

Back in 1839, a German scientist by the name of Heinrich Wilhelm Dove discovered that if you play a tone into your left ear at a particular frequency, and play a similar tone into your right ear at a slightly different frequency, the brain plays a little trick on itself, and you hear a beat where no beat exists, at a frequency that is the difference between what your left ear hears and what your right ear hears. The two tones must be below 1,000 Hz, and the difference between them cannot exceed 30 Hz. . . so if you’re listening to a 400 Hz tone in one ear and a 410 Hz tone in the other, you’ll hear a 10 Hz beat even though both tones are constant. The beat is all in your head.

The explanation given by web sites that sell recordings of binaural beats is that this has the power to radically reshape your mental state through a process called ‘entrainment,’ in which the beat frequency influences your brainwave activity and basically alters it by force. While it all sounds more or less plausibly scientific, the truth is that controlled tests of binaural beats and their effect on the human brain fall quite a bit short of producing the dramatic effects claimed by purveyors of binaural beat recordings. One of the more popular vendors, a site called iDoser, offers a dizzying array of audio files that they claim have the same effect on people as marijuana, cocaine, heroin, psilocybin, LSD, or even Viagra. 

To some extent, the jury is still out on whether or not you can have any sort of profound effect at all on the human brain with binaural beats (aside from what you get from music in general); some studies suggest that they may be helpful as an adjunct to surgical anesthetics, while other studies seem to directly contradict those findings, or show that the effect is no different than what happens when you listen to Mozart, jazz, or dubstep. Some examples:

At Duke University Medical Center, a study in which psychiatrists tested the effects of binaural beats on academic performance found that, on average, subjects who listened to them performed better on an alertness test and were in a better mood than subjects who listened to normal recordings of “pink noise.” A person’s mood is a pretty subjective thing, though, and there was no comparison with ordinary music. . . so it’s possible that anything with a good beat would have the same effect, binaural or not.

Another study conducted in the Anesthesiology Department of Yale Medical School measured the relative anesthesia requirements for sixty patients, split into two groups: one group listened to a binaural beats recording both before and during surgery, and the other group listened to a blank tape. There was no difference in the levels of anesthesia required between the two groups. . . but a different study, at Ninewells Hospital’s Department of Epidemiology in Dundee, Scotland, claimed that patients listening to binaural beats required significantly less of one type of anesthetic – fentanyl – than patients who listened to classical music or a blank tape.

At New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine, researchers played binaural beats to thirty people undergoing either a stomach bypass or lower back surgery, and found that while the bypass patients needed less anesthesia than a control group, the lower back patients needed slightly more.

What does it all mean? The idea that you can get high on sound is certainly an interesting one, but even in the studies that seem to show a reduced need for anesthesia, the focus was more on the effects of stress than on the allegedly narcotic power of Heinrich Wilhelm Dove’s parlor trick. You might be able to improve your mood or slow down your pulse a bit by strapping on a pair of headphones and listening to a binaural beat (and you might not), but there’s simply no reason at all to believe that you can simulate the effects of different recreational drugs just by grooving to an audio recording. If you’re a concerned parent, relax; those teenagers you see on YouTube freaking out over what’s coming through their headphones are just mocking the gullible.

Oklahoma City News 9 reports on the terrors that lurk in your child’s iPod

If you want to experiment with binaural beats for yourself, there’s no need to pay anyone or trust some stranger’s YouTube videos. You’ve even got a choice: both Gnaural and rival DIY binary beats suite SbaGen are free of charge and available for Windows, MacOS, or Linux.