A few years ago I came across a website selling “i-dosers” – a colloquial term for binaural tones – that claimed to simulate the effects of drugs ranging from heroin to prescription medications. The site had a rather vague, “scientific” introduction explaining how brainwaves could be altered through music. At the bottom of the page, there were a few free 30-second clips, but also a caveat noting that the “true effect” may require more than 30 seconds. Some claimed to require a full hour to take effect. Sounded pretty sketchy. I tried a 30-second “marijuana” sample with no results. I rarely pay for music I know I enjoy, so I certainly wasn’t going to pay for static that may or may not get me “high.” It sounded like a semi-plausible concept though. I doubted such tones could accurately recreate the specific effects of illegal drugs, but using sound to alter a person’s sense of perception seemed imaginable.
I rediscovered this topic recently and did some quick research. Apparently “drug music” has some scientific weight to it. In 1839, a Prussian physicist named Heinrich Wilhelm Dove discovered the phenomenon known as binaural beats. After his discovery, research in the area suspiciously went dark for the next 134 years. Today there seems to be newfound interest in the use of binaural beats for a wide arrange of scientific and medical purposes. Wikipedia defines binaural beats as the following:
“The brain produces a phenomenon resulting in low-frequency pulsations in the loudness of a perceived sound when two tones at slightly different frequencies are presented separately, one to each of a subject’s ears, using stereo headphones. A beating tone will be perceived, as if the two tones mixed naturally, out of the brain. The frequency of the tones must be below about 1,000 to 1,500 hertz for the beating to be heard. The difference between the two frequencies must be small (below about 30 Hz) for the effect to occur; otherwise, the two tones will be heard separately and no beat will be perceived.
Binaural beats are of interest to neurophysiologists investigating the sense of hearing. Second (and more controversially), binaural beats reportedly influence the brain in more subtle ways through the entrainment of brainwaves and can be used to produce relaxation and other health benefits such as pain relief.“
Some studies have suggested that binaural beats can make brainwaves “conform” to the incoming frequencies when those frequencies are within normal brainwave variation. Naturally, humans emit various frequencies of brainwaves corresponding to different states of mind. For example, “delta waves” – a form of very low frequency waves – are typically associated with sleep or “out of body” experiences, while “gamma waves” – a higher frequency – are associated with problem solving and fear. The theory of “drug music” states that if a person were to be exposed to frequencies almost identical to that of a certain state of mind (possibly drug-induced) then the brainwaves would naturally move towards the balance of the incoming frequencies, creating an altered state of mind. 😮
Research in this area always seems to be labeled as experimental at best though, and I still wasn’t convinced of any of the audacious claims made by the site I originally stumbled upon. However, I was still very interested in the concept and wanted to try a “full dose” for myself to see if any effect could be felt at all. I came across a free, full-length binaural beat on a private bit torrent site and decided to try it. The torrent contained the following description: “Enjoy a totally safe and exhilarating experience, with this 60 minute recording. Simply relax as you listen to the binaural beats stimulating parts of your mind not touched by other CDs. A fantastically awesome inner-journey. Use for good moods, euphoria, visualization.” Seemed like a relatively humble enough claim. At the very least I’d probably be taking a nap after an hour. I downloaded and pressed play. The mp3 had the following introduction:
Hello, and welcome to this very special digital drug recording from binuaral.beats.com. You’re about to embark on an exciting journey where your brainwaves will be influenced to guide you into new found states of mind. You don’t need years of practice. You don’t need any special skills. In fact, all you have to do is listen. You need to use stereo headphones in order to listen to this CD. Make sure you don’t listen to this CD when you need to remain awake. The noises on this CD may sound like pulsing tones or swishing. That’s intentional. These are the tones that generate the “third beat.” The binaural beat inside the head, which helps influence your brainwaves. If the volume on this CD is ever too high, simply turn it down. The binaural beat recording works at any volume. You can play it at a very low volume and it’s still just as effective. Remember: the more you listen, the greater the effect this recording will have on you. Are you ready? Then sit back, relax and let’s begin.
First 30 minutes: I started by laying on my bed facing the ceiling in a dimly lit room. I tried to focus solely on the sound, trying not to let my thoughts race or wander. The volume was low and I felt no need to immediately adjust it. The recording initially sounded like two separate tones. One being a smooth drone and another pulsing like the sound of an alien spaceship from an old sci-fi movie. I decided to close my eyes after the first few minutes to help me concentrate. I slowly felt more relaxed, but wasn’t sure if it could be attributed to the music or the fact that I was laying on my bed with my eyes closed. I opened my eyes after a few minutes and felt slightly strange. At this point, I’d assumed I would have found the droning and pulsating music rather annoying but I realized I was actually hardly paying attention to it. I was enjoying it. I was no longer trying to control the pace of my thoughts. My mind seemed almost incapable of racing. After a few more minutes I tried thinking about things I had to do later or things that usually cause anxiety. As I thought about them, the typical accompanying anxiety was noticeably absent. This might sound familiar to potheads. I can say it definitely resembled the anxiety-reducing effect of marijuana. I did this test for several more minutes and it seemed to hold up. The pace of my mind was slowed and I felt uniquely relaxed.
Final 30 minutes: for the second half, I decided to sit up and use my computer. I made no conscious attempt to relax, rather just did what I would normally do on my computer. I turned my ceiling fan back on, which added another subtle layer of ambient noise to the room. After sitting up, I realized how relaxed my body was. Similar to getting a massage, but not quite. it seemed there were no tension spots in my body. I felt slightly light-headed and renewed, like that feeling after a nap when you’re no longer groggy, but simply relaxed and calm. After nearly an hour, I hadn’t found the droning and pulsating sound annoying in the least. I was actually considering keeping the track on repeat. As the track faded out in the last 15 seconds or so, I removed my earbuds. This was another unique moment. I felt slightly euphoric in a “happy to be back home” sort of way. I clicked around for a bit on the Internet while continuing to feel at ease. When I finally played a song from iTunes, it seemed fresh vibrant even though it was a song I’d heard plenty of times before. Again I would liken this to the experience of listening to music while stoned, but not quite as unique. After another 30 minutes, most of the effects had completely dissipated.
I’m not sure how to classify what I felt while listening to this track, or if it’s even unique to this type of sound. I’ve never listened to any meditation tapes or “nature sounds” in the same manner, so it’s possible that someone could derive a similar experience from those methods. Personally I found it quite unique. I’ve listened to Brian Eno, Stars of the Lid and The Field in similar fashion, and I can say this experience was set apart. I feel like I experienced the types of sensations people describe when they meditate. Though many of the effects were similar to marijuana, it’s definitely not a substitute and marijuana is definitely more potent. I find it extremely difficult to believe any such sound could produce results similar to harder drugs. That being said, I think I will use this track in the future. It’s not going to have any impact on the illegal drug market, but it’s definitely worth the time if you need to clear your head and simply relax with a possibly unique experience.