With nothing more than an internet connection, you can improve your sleep, reduce anxiety, and … supposedly "enter the fourth dimension" (according to this video). Such are the bold promises of binaural beats, a kind of auditory illusion or digital drug that, some advocates say, can produce psychoactive effects resembling everything from ayahuasca to cocaine.
While watching the above video, one commenter reported visiting a world “with trees that had crystals and seashells for leaves.” To which another replied, “I’m excited to go there too. It’s just a bit hard for me.”
Apparently, not all who partake reach that magical realm (including this writer). In fact, as far as empirical research is concerned, it remains unclear whether anyone is actually getting high through headphones.
Nevertheless, a 2021 Global Drug Survey found that just over 5 percent of respondents — our of nearly 31,000 people — had listened to binaural beats hoping to “get a similar effect to that of other drugs.” With the experimental zeal of teenagers snorting Smarties, they’re trying, successful or not.
The Basics of Binaural Beats
The strange thing is that, in a sense, binaural beats don’t exist: They are the ethereal creations of your own brain.
When you listen to two frequencies at the same time (say, 420 and 460 hertz), you’ll hear a third corresponding to the difference between them (40 hertz). It’s as if the harmony of the two creates its own distinct frequency.
Prussian meteorologist Heinrich Wilhelm Dove is credited as the first person to note this phenomenon, detecting it in 1839 using tuning forks.
In the early 1970s, modern scientists swapped in electronic equipment and picked up where he left off. Since then, some have theorized that the third tone synchronizes brain waves, in a process known as neural entrainment.
The resulting mental state has been linked to wide-ranging benefits, from increased focus to lower pain levels, though the evidence is limited and conflicting.
High or Just Relaxed on Music?
In the eyes of medical and academic research, it has not been shown to induce anything like an “intense spiritual awakening” or a “shamanic trance journey.”
Yet you’ll find these claims attached to the proliferating videos and playlists that promote binaural beats on YouTube, Spotify and other platforms. Some apps, the most prominent being I-Doser, even sell MP3 files named for the drugs they are supposed to mimic. Among their products is an acronym-heavy package of auditory THC, MDMA, LSD and DMT.
Read More: Psychedelic Effects on the Brain
Based on the Global Drug Survey, the vast majority of users simply want to relax, fall asleep or enhance their mood. And the market caters just as enthusiastically to them.
“It’s a really small group who are actually trying to use them for altered states that are associated with psychoactive drugs,” says Alexia Maddox, a researcher at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, who analyzed the survey results on digital drugs in a paper published last March.
How Common Is this 'Digital Drug' Pursuit?
It’s difficult to be sure how fringe binaural beat consumption is.
Maddox notes that beyond the survey (which does not necessarily represent the general population), “all we can do is see hype, and social media engagement,” of which there is plenty.
Strikingly, a 2018 study found that binaural beats were mentioned more often than any traditional narcotics on an online forum dedicated to drug discussion. In many cases, drug users may be seeking to heighten the effects of standard substances rather than seeking binaural beats as an alternative.
At the other end of the spectrum, critics have voiced concern about the corruptive influence of tripping out on sound. (These reactions seem mostly limited to some Middle Eastern countries.)
Yet, contrary to the fear that binaural beats might serve as a new gateway to illicit substances for youth, an alternative reality seems to be true. According to the Global Drug Survey, most people who tune in to such music are already experimenting with classic psychedelics like psilocybin and acid.
Challenging the Status Quo
Importantly, Maddox’s intent was not to test the science of binaural beats. Instead, she and her colleagues wanted to investigate how people areusing them, regardless of whether they have the desired effect.
“What we need to know,” she says, “is how they make sense of it and incorporate it into their experience.” She’s concerned with concrete practice, not with subjective mind-bending properties, or lack thereof.
That said, some experts, including Monica Barrat, one of Maddox’s co-authors, believe it may be close-minded to dismiss the possibility that binaural beats act like drugs.
Redefining Drug Use
Although they don’t fit the well-established definition — among other things, they aren’t ingestible substances — Barratt has argued that the conventional wisdom underpinning how we think about psychoactive effects is imprecise and overly restrictive.
A more nuanced perspective might make room for “substances” that you “ingest” via ear canal. For now, the term “digital drug” comes with a grain of salt. But a new interpretation, should it arise, would likely require rethinking many aspects of drug policy.
“Once you start changing the definition,” Maddox says, “that makes things a little trickier when you say, ‘Should we regulate this?’ ” Considering binaural beats are currently free to stream on your platform of choice, they’re far more accessible than even whiskey or cannabis.
Whatever these provocative sound waves really are, it’s safe to say they have something to teach us — if not about how to open our third eye, then about our relationship with mind-altering drugs or the fears and motives and assumptions we bring to the conversation.