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Idosers, Digital Drugs & Binaural Beats - Do They Work and Are They Safe?By Adam Sinicki
Hello, I'm currently on Marijuana. A few minutes ago I was on LSD. My brain hurts.
Well, actually I'm not Marijuana and I wasn't on LSD, but in theory I kind of am and was... if you read on you'll probably figure out what I'm on about. Or not...
'Digital Drugs', known less excitingly as 'Binaural Beats', are a phenomenon that's only recently really kicked off online. Having recently come to the fore as companies such as 'Idoser' attempt to turn in a profit from the idea. Like many other things found on the internet they are surrounded by controversy both in terms of the ethics behind them and how effective they really are.
It's easy to see what all the commotion is about, as if they really do work their effects could be used for a variety of people from all walks of life. Essentially Binaural Beats are sound files that sound very similar to an untuned radio with some strange rave-style beats thrown in (as you can maybe tell I don't go to many raves...). Listening to these sounds for long enough however can purportedly have a range of effects on the listener's brain essentially re-creating the feeling of being on drugs, meditating, dreaming or a range of other experiences.
This is only effective if listened to through headphones and supposedly works by playing different wavelengths in each ear. Apparently the brain automatically adjusts its own frequency to be exactly in-between those it's hearing (this is known as 'entraining'). Using this method then it follows that you can force your brainwaves to a certain pace - alpha, beta, delta, gamma - or levels experienced when in a certain state such as meditation or tripping. Of particular interest to readers of this site however are the sounds that promise nootropic effects, claiming to improve memory, learning, fluid intelligence or inspiration.
While this may sound too good to be true for some of us, others are rather adverse to the idea and there's a tonne of literature on the net damning the craze and warning against potential hazards. It seems many are worried that having their kids downloading drugs directly into their brains might not be a good idea (really?) - that it could still be dangerous if the effects cause them to act in unusual ways, or that it could send them on the infamous 'slippery slope' to real drugs and homelessness and prostitution and child pornography.
As you can probably tell from my mildly sarcastic tone (seriously though - they might end up HOMELESS and DEAD) I disagree. First of all I think it's a bit early for anyone to be getting their nickers in a twist seeing as there's no conclusive evidence that any of this actually works. Secondly, I think that as usual the media is underestimating the intelligence of the MTV generation. Most of my friends who use drugs say they started out of curiosity (and that's the only reason I might ever be tempted (but I'm a hero!)), if it were possible to test the effects of narcotics without any of the inherent risks then it might dissuade these miscreants from trying the real thing. That said, there is a worrying lack of information available on the topic. For example it is unkown whether users can experience flashbacks, how long the effects last, whether it's safe to drive after using, whether its safe to use if you have various medical conditions etc etc. As usual the fearful reaction of those in positions of power has lead to a lack of research - ironically rendering the initial controversial item more dangerous than it would have been if we had a greater understanding. More research should be done - and then if it proves safe and effective they may offer a safe and cheap alternative to the real deal. Furthermore they may offer help in other areas - as a remedy for depression, as a learning aid, or as just one more way to make yourself stronger, faster and smarter! Unfortunately there are currently no digital drugs designed to help build muscle...
Obviously this all sounds great (well not literally) but it's only any use if it actually works. The small amount of research that has been done on the topic has shown mixed results with some studies conclusively proving it works and others conclusively proving it doesn't. The theory is sound (no pun in tended) however with brain entraining having been used for several years. The problem as far as I can tell is that the effects that the producers claim are possible seem rather specific; a sound that causes alpha brainwaves is believeable, but one that causes you to experience the exact same thing as someone on LSD is something else.
Of course all this idle speculation is meaningless - and so as usual I decided to find out first hand how well these digital drugs worked. Oh the things I do in the name of journalistic integrity.
The first one I tried was titled 'alcohol' and I actually went driving immediately afterwards. Not adviseable obviously, but the problem honestly hadn't occured to me (perhaps because I was 'drunk'?). Anyway, the drive was a complete mess, I went the wrong way and mounted the curb - nothing unusual there then. Seriously though, although I felt a little unusual it was nothing that couldn't have been put down to a placebo effect. I decided to try something a little more verifiable next and so the next day I whacked the headphones in again. This time I felt the effects immediately and had a physical reaction that I think would be rather hard to fake and which suprised me quite a lot. The exact nature of this I'd rather not disclose as it is of a rather personal and... disgusting nature. Suffice to say that I am fairly certain that at least one of the files had the intended effect, and if anyone wants to hear about it in more detail they can e-mail me. The others however I found less succesful. I tried one titled 'trip' which had some strange but non-trip like results. Basically other than feeling a bit weird I suddenly recalled one old memory and heard an unkown gruff voice loudly shout in my ear 'Do it!'. Okay so these minor hallucinations are unusual - but they certainly aren't quite the crazy and enlightening/scary experiences my drug using friends have described. If anything these were probably the results of me being in a state somewhere between waking and sleeping. I decided for this reason to up the ante and try one titled 'LSD', which just sent me to sleep (although this is useful if nothing else), and left me in a weird and slightly miserable mood for the rest of the day which was actually rather unpleasant and put me off using others for a while. If this file really worked there would be no issue regarding falling asleep, or placebo effects, or concentration. If this were a real substitute for one of the most powerful drugs currently in use then I would have known about it. Further experiments with 'Lucid Dream', 'Inspiration' and 'Brain +' proved equally ineffective. And after spending 20-40 minutes listening I couldn't help but feel I'd wasted time that could have been spent eating sandwiches or reading Watchmen - particularly as they left me groggy and unprodutive.
So so far I'd had mixed results and it was becoming clear to me that my initial suspiciouns might be correct. You see while it makes sense to me that you can entrain your brain waves to a certain level so becoming more alert or relaxed; it seems crazy to suggest that you can bring about an exact mental state. Supporters of the craze claim that certain brainwaves can trigger the release of hormones and that this is how the drug like effects occur but that seems to be missing the point that LSD or Marijuana or any other drug is something external that you are administering unnaturally. Ordinary music has the ability to alter your mood or frame of mind and it seems to me that Binaural Beats simply do this to a greater extent. This theory was supported in my own testing - files that simply aimed to change your mood or your brainwaves seemed fairly effective, but those that claimed to cause hallucinations or advanced learning were not. This limits the range of things that digital drugs could be useful for to increasing awareness, aiding with sleeping or meditation, or altering moods. I must admit I was dissapointed. Here I was hoping that I would be enhancing myself using a new and unusual technology but as usual I was dissapointed. Binaural Beats are no silver bullet - but they do have potential to be useful under the right circumstances.
As I stated at the begining of this rambling article, right now I'm listening to a file called 'marijuana', the intended effects of which are self explanatory. I feel fairly normal (as normal as ever at least) and unless I read this back and it doesn't make any sense I think it's safe to say that the effects are minimal. Anyway I don't need drugs to have fun - not when I can enjoy the company of Henry the Happy Banana!
Of course digital drugs are by far preferable to real drugs. Those who are hooked on actual drugs will have to consider seeking help at drug abuse centers sooner or later. This way at least you can avoid overdosing or ruining your life.
So in conclusion: are Binaural Beats a waste of time? No. Are companies such as Idoser ripping off their custemers? Yes. Can you get high from a digital drug? No. Can you send yourself to sleep or increase attention? Yes. Do more studies need to be done? Damn right!
Meanwhile you could always test them yourself!
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