About a month ago, a scientist in the United Arab Emirates started making noise about banning something called "binaural beats," which he referred to as "digital drugs." These are audio tracks—calling them "music" would be a bit of a stretch—that you can buy online for $16.95 or less. Banning tones that purport to alter your state of mind sounded to me like an over-the-top, reactionary response to something that probably didn't even work. But what if it did work? What if these tracks really got you high?
I decided I should give this stuff a try, so I downloaded five different MP3 "dose packs" from I-Doser, a supplier of the futuristic, mind-melding drugs who take themselves quite seriously. According to their website, they have "several teams of underground music and tonal experts, programmers, testers, researchers, and admins," and "each audio track contains advanced binaural beats that will synchronize your brainwaves." Whoa. There were a lot of different doses available—sexual doses, designer doses, sport doses, game enhancers, pure doses, and so on—so I had to be somewhat selective. I didn't want anything that produced a calming sensation, since I could get that from a meditative flute piece on YouTube accompanied by a still shot of a waterfall. I wanted to trip out and feel closer to the big man upstairs. So I got the most advanced versions of the "recreational," "prescription," "fictional," "sacred," and "celestial" dose packs. Each contained four 15-minute-long audio tracks, and I tried out the most interesting sounding ones.
Prescription Simulations: Ambie
My options in the pack of prescription doses were Xanax, Ambie, Valim, and Klono. I went with Ambie, which is supposed to simulate the effect of Ambien. Now, I came into this thinking that these beats were all just a big pile of stupid, but I was determined to give it a shot. I sat on a chair in my bedroom and put my ear buds in, started the track, and closed my eyes. I was trying to force myself into a Zen state and let the beats take over my mind. The track began with a steady, mechanical hum that occasionally got interrupted by some kind of static. It later flowed into a soft and calming mystical tune, the soundtrack of a fairytale. I didn't really feel anything for the first couple minutes, and I opened my eyes around four minutes into the session. They felt a little heavy, but I told myself it was psychological, a placebo. Then I realized, hey this stuff is sort of the real deal. My head started feeling heavy and gradually got heavier and heavier. By the end of the session my entire body was numbed and tingling. I started waving my arms around to prove to myself that these sensations were happening because I'd been sitting in the same position for 15 minutes with my eyes closed. It didn't help, though. My brain was empty and five minutes later, I still felt completely sedated.
So I guess this stuff works.
Fictional Simulations: Bloodthistle
These fictional doses are supposed to synchronize your brainwaves to simulate doses from your favorite movies, books, and games. Whatever that means. I went with the Bloodthistle dose because it had a cool-sounding name—when I looked it up online, it turns out Bloodthistle is an herb in World of Warcraft that is supposed to increase "spell powers." OK, that's pretty cool, I guess. Like the Ambie track, there were quite a few hums and vibrations—but it was never calming. As if they were in the distance, I could hear thunder, bells, and running water. Listening to Bloodthistle made me feel like I was running after Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games—powerful, in control, a little evil. It wasn't nearly as intense as the Ambie, though.
Celestial Simulations: Sleeping Angel
Sleeping Angel was a good way to bring me down. I sprawled out on my bed for this one because I felt it was appropriate to be in my natural sleeping habitat. Sleeping Angel was mostly white noise, static that changed its pitch gradually until it sounded like it was going in slow motion. An occasional intrusion into the static would pop up here and there—a soft dinging noise or whistle. To make a long story short, I experienced a few short lucid dreams—none of which I can remember in detail—and passed out well before the session was over. That was pretty unusual, since I had eight hours of sleep the night before, I never nap, and this was at 3 PM.
Really focusing on these tracks and trying to "feel" them is a lot more work than you would think. My brain started to feel like mush after three doses, so I took a break before I moved on to what I thought would be the most fun part: the recreational dose.
Recreation Doses: Amanita and Overdose
Nobody wants to trip on shrooms alone, so I had my friend come over and listen to Amanita with me. Unfortunately, as much as I was ready to trip, I didn't. It sounded like a Caribou track with unexplainable vibrations in the background, which just ended up messing with my anxiety and making me feel like a 15-pound weight was sitting on my chest. Such a bummer.
Since I wasn't satisfied with Amanita, I decided to give Overdose a shot. I went to the VICE office for this one, a much busier environment than my little bedroom, to see if setting played a role in how effective these beats were. By this point I have gathered that hums and vibrations are standard for these beats. But there was way too much going on here: tropical bird cries, running water, thunder, thuds, beeps, the sound of metal rubbing against metal. AHHHHHHH. I've never overdosed, or really even come close to overdosing, but listening to Overdose is what I imagine overdosing feels like. It scared me shitless and shot my anxiety through the roof. I kept thinking my body was rocking forward and backward even though I was sitting still. I still felt flustered and anxious ten minutes after the audio ended. Why would anyone listen to this for fun?
Sacred Simulations: Hand of God and Gates of Hades
According to I-Doser's description, sacred doses are supposed to help you feel the Big Bang, angelic bliss, and hellfire. The tracks I had listened to so far gave me the impression that I was hypnotized, but Hand of God was… different. It started out very soothing and tasteful with a choir singing something vaguely hymn-like, but soon it brought in corny chants and devilish voices you might hear at a cheap amusement park's haunted house. Blech.
On the other hand, I really loved Gates of Hades. I can't really describe the actual noise of this track in a way that makes sense. Some seagulls in the background, soft dings, an occasional gong. Sometimes it would be solely static and white noise, which sounded and felt nearly identical to Sleeping Angel. It felt like a pretty good simulation of what would happen if your soul were to escape your body after you die. I felt like I was teetering between heaven and hell, but ultimately I was going to hell and OK with it. I started reflecting on my life choices and thinking about death, something I normally don't dedicate any time to. I realized that I really don't want to die, even if the Gates of Hades sounds warm and welcoming. Pretty heavy for just a bunch of noises. I see now why an uptight "police scientist" would want to ban these, but I also see why bored kids in the UAE are into them. Binaural beats aren't quite as powerful and fun as real drugs, but they're not a bad way to pass the time on a lazy weekend.
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