Officials in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon have launched new campaigns to prevent the use of "digital drugs"—audio files meant to induce drug-like states in listeners — even though the effectiveness of purportedly psychoactive sounds is questionable at best.
The files, which are also known as "binaural beats," prompted a prominent police scientist in the United Arab Emirates to call for them to be treated like cannabis and MDMA in 2012. Following that line of reasoning, Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper reported this week that Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi is alarmed enough by the audio tracks to push for legal measures against them, while Saudi Arabia's National Commission for Drug Control, Directorate General for Drug Control, and Communications Authority are reportedly holding "urgent meetings" to discuss how to shield the kingdom's citizens from the binaural scourge.
The tracks play two pure tones through headphones, and can be heard for free on YouTube or purchased through retail websites and apps like I-Doser for a few dollars. The tone in one ear is a slightly different frequency than the tone playing in the other ear. This produces an effect in the listener of hearing a third sound, which is typically undulating or rhythmic.
Many binaural beats are advertised as offering a meditative effect to help people calm down or chill out, though there are also audio tracks that claim to create the same effect in a listener as cocaine, molly, ayahuasca, poppers, Xanax, Klonopin, and other assorted drugs. Some of I-Doser's files even claim to give listeners the same effect as a sexual experience, creating a similar state to orgasm. None of them are addictive, the website claims.
Whether the sounds actually work as advertised is very much open to debate, according to Michael Casey, a computer science and music professor at Dartmouth College who studies the effects of music on the brain.
"The idea that binaural beats or this very simple sound phenomenon is having an impact on a direct medical condition or a cognitive state such as sleep or increased focus is still a matter of further research at this point," Casey told VICE News, noting that there is so far too little scientific evidence about whatever effects they may have.
"The idea that it's dangerous because it can induce mental states that are analogous to psychoactive drugs is an area of pure speculation," he said.
What is clear, he added, is that the idea of sound or music being used to induce a hypnotic or transcendent state goes back to the "dawn of civilization," and can be seen in various religions and cultures. It has also been a characteristic of trance music since the 1980s, he said.
"So to single out a single phenomenon and say it's dangerous as a drug is to miss, I think, one of the primary functions historically of the power of music," he said. "It's just like listening to music that soothes you. You can always choose music that enhances your mood or takes you places you want to go, and you don't need the FDA to approve it. I mean, let's hope they don't ban uplifting music soon."
I-Doser claims that the files work by making a person's brain waves behave as they would under the influence of the substance that the audio is trying to simulate.
"Each audio track contains our advanced binaural beats that will synchronize your brainwaves to the same state as the recreational dose," I-Doser says in its description of its Recreational Doses 1 MP3 product, which includes doses to mimic marijuana, cocaine, opium, and peyote. VICE News was unable to reach I-Doser's representatives for comment.
The credulity of Lebanese and Saudi Arabian officials notwithstanding, Casey is skeptical of the company's claims.
"I think for the individual who's at home relaxing in a chair, focusing on the sound, sitting in a chair focused on something for a period of time — that's kind of like a meditative state or concentrating state. So how can you separate that from any positive effect of just sitting there meditating?" he asked. "Maybe it helps people focus and sit still. The studies need to be done to control for whether it's just the act of sitting still for a while or some kind of modulation of the brain."
Audio "doses" might be under review in places like Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, but there has been no similar reaction among US authorities. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration did not know what "digital drugs" were when VICE called to ask about their danger.
"At this time, we are aware of no scientific data on this phenomenon, so NIDA cannot establish the validity of the claim that you can get high listening to these sounds or that it leads to drug abuse," the National Institute on Drug Abuse offered in a statement.
Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen
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