USA Today has an unintentionally hilarious article on the dangers of ‘digital drugs’ that can supposedly mimic the effects of alcohol, marijuana, LSD, crack, heroin, sex, heaven and hell.
Woohoo! I hear you shout, before realising the article is actually a woefully misinformed piece about binaural beats, a fascinating but harmless phenomenon when two pure tones of close but differing frequencies are played, one in each ear.
This can produce a perception of a pulse or a ‘beat’ which isn’t actually present in the sound but is a result of our brain making sense of the tones.
You need headphones to get the effect properly and there’s a couple of examples on the Wikipedia page (ignore the ‘hypothetical effects on brain function’ section though, it’s currently full of drivel and miscited experiments).
The fact that it causes a ‘pulsing’ in the brain has led to lots of websites suggesting it can ‘synchronise your brain waves’ – and whenever ‘synchronising brain waves’ is mentioned you can be sure they’ll be lots of nonsense about ascending to higher states of consciousness, super mind power and legal LSD being mentioned.
Actually, there are a minority of people who can have their state of consciousness altered by flashes of light at certain frequencies.
In fact, it may trigger full blown seizures in some (photosensitive epilepsy) but also causes minor and subtle seizure activity in others and in some can stimulate memories or images, or perhaps just cause an ‘odd’ feeling.
This was the basis of the original ‘dream machine‘ and subsequent electronic versions which flash lights in your eyes. The history and neuroscience of this discovery was retold in the excellent book Chapel of Extreme Experience if you’re interested.
Some preliminary research has shown that binaural beat audio can decrease anxiety or boost mood, but the studies are small and inconclusive and some are published in what we might tactfully refer to as ‘non-mainstream’ journals.
In the vast majority of people though, flashing lights or auditory pulses of whatever type do bugger all on their own, despite what various New Age websites and YouTube videos try and convince you (infinite bliss anyone?).
The USA Today piece manages to swallow this hook, line and sinker to fantastic comic effect:
Different types of digital drugs
Some sites provide binaural beats that have innocuous effects. For example, some claim to help you develop extrasensory powers like telepathy and psychokinesis.
Other sites offer therapeutic binaural beats. They help you relax or meditate. Some allegedly help you overcome addiction or anxiety. Others purport to help you lose weight or eliminate gray hair.
However, most sites are more sinister. They sell audio files (“doses”) that supposedly mimic the effects of alcohol and marijuana.
But it doesn’t end there. You’ll find doses that purportedly mimic the effects of LSD, crack, heroin and other hard drugs. There are also doses of a sexual nature. I even found ones that supposedly simulate heaven and hell.
There’s plenty more great entertainment in the article. Life imitates Chris Morris, again.
Hey, I’m having a comedown from my infinite bliss.
I want my money back.