Jul 19 2010

Digital Drugs Do Not Cure Stupidity

I have never been a fan of the local news, where journalistic standards are often annoying. Often the local news is an exercise in insulting the intelligence of the viewer. But at least the local news was local. With the internet, however, local news reports are increasingly being picked up by larger national outlets and amplified manyfold. So now I get to be subjected to the worst of local news reporting from all over the country.

Local news reporters brought us the Desiree Jennings story, and now they bring us the story of digital drugs, or i-dosing. From Oklahoma News 9 we learn that parents need to be very concerned (maybe they should even panic) – their kids are downloading digital drugs and listening to them on their i-pods, and this may be a gateway drug to the hard stuff.

Read and watch the report. I love the picture of the teenager with a towel on his face listening to headphones – real trippy. I wonder how staged that photo was. If you have ever dealt with a local news reporter you would wonder the same thing.

According to the report, teenagers are listening to tracks containing binuaral beats, which alter brain waves and can create a high. There is one piece of information that is conspicuously missing from the report, however. Binaural beats are complete pseudoscience – they don’t work, they don’t affect brain function. You cannot get high from listening to noise. I discussed binaural beats four years ago on the SGU – but here is a quick overview and update.

The concept is that by combining different frequencies of sound in different ears, and illusory additional beat is heard by the listener. This beat is not present in the sound, but is an auditory illusion created by the brain’s processing of the auditory information. This much is probably true – but that is where the truth of claims made for binaural beats end. Proponents argue that binaural beats alter brain waves. This may be true in the trivial sense that brain activity – experiencing sensory input – alters brain waves, but only as part of the normal functioning of the brain. I can alter your brain waves by shining a strobe light in your eyes, but this will not alter your brain function (unless you have epilepsy, in which case in might induce a seizure).

A 2010 study of the effects of binaural beats on brain processing found:

The perceptions of binaural beats involve cortical activity that is not different than acoustic beats in distribution and in the effects of beat- and base frequency, indicating similar cortical processing.

In other words – this is just normal brain processing and perception, nothing magical or special.

There are also a few pilot studies or small controlled studies (i.e. preliminary data only) showing possible reduction in mild anxiety, but no effect on attention in ADHD. Subjective anxiety is a tricky outcome to measure, especially in uncontrolled or unblinded studies. It’s possible there is a small non-specific effect just from the distraction of the experimental process, and no reason at this point to think there is a specific physiological effect from the binaural beats themselves.

There is also no published evidence at all concerning binaural beats and getting high.

The News 9 report included no skepticism at all about binaural beats. The reporters did not even ask the question of whether or not these digital drugs actually work, let alone consult an expert. Instead they presented the most sensational opinions and the immediate knee-jerk panicked reactions of schools and officials. National news outlets then repeated the story without adding any skepticism or useful information. At least Wired had the sense to make fun of the story a bit (although the humor is a bit subtle, and they also did not add any skepticism). They wrote:

Will future presidential candidates defend their i-dosing past by saying, “But I had it on mute”? Are we supposed to declare a war on cyberdrugs or a cyberwar on cyberdrugs? How will police know if a teen is with headphones on is i-dosing or just listening to Justin Bieber? Is the iPod the bong of the future? What would happen if some ne’er-do-well took over the console of the Super Bowl and dosed the entire country? What if kids smoked dried banana peels and listened to these trippy tunes at the same time — could they OD? What happens if someone sells a tainted MP3?

My advice to parents is not to worry. Binaural beats are benign – in fact, they do nothing. There is no evidence to suggest that they lead to actual pharmacological drugs, and kids may be “experimenting” with them partly because they know the whole thing is silly. Next we’ll probably hear that kids are trying to get high on homeopathic drugs. That would also be completely ineffective and nothing to worry about (as long as they were truly homeopathic).

22 responses so far

22 Responses to “Digital Drugs Do Not Cure Stupidity”

  1. SARAon 19 Jul 2010 at 8:43 am

    I read this story and suspected as much. In the story I read I was more interested in the behavioral question. I assume some portion of kids have some placebo effect from it.
    Is the pursuit of “the high” (real or not) a sign of behavior that should be managed by a parent?
    Is the placebo effect going to cause kids to pursue real highs when hedonic effect of the placebo effect takes over?

  2. Watcheron 19 Jul 2010 at 9:19 am

    It’s like the joke you see in movies every-so-often where teens are either drinking or getting high, hijinks ensue, only to find out that they were drinking NA beer or smoking oregano.

  3. agentlionon 19 Jul 2010 at 12:10 pm

    They did a fluff piece on this on NPR’s All Things Considered last weekend. When the host introduced the story, I was ready to roll my eyes and groan, but I was pleased with the story overall. They had a professor on talking about it (although, now I see she is a “Naturopathic Physician”…. blegh) who emphatically said the story was bunk and parents have nothing to worry about.

  4. locutusbrgon 19 Jul 2010 at 1:09 pm

    For 10 years I worked in a level one trauma ER. Not once did I ever see the local news get anything but the most superficial details of trauma, rape, or shootings correct. This was partially due to patient privacy. Still when facts were public knowledge I would often point out the errors by mail, before email, later by email. I was mostly ignored. I know that opinion is not scientifically rigorous, confirmation bias et AL. Still, I tell everyone personal and professional that in 10 years I never heard the local news get one story correct. From my point of view the weather is about 35% CORRECT and probably the most accurate part of the news.

  5. HHCon 19 Jul 2010 at 6:56 pm

    In the twentieth century, there were warnings about sex, alcohol, and jazz and later sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll. Is the twenty-first century warning coming out of Oklahoma, forget the sex, its those uneven musical beats and an internet connection to a drug-order line or a doobie site?

  6. Steven Ron 19 Jul 2010 at 8:04 pm

    So agentlion, what you are saying is this story is so bad that even a Naturopath thinks its crap?

    Thats pretty harsh

  7. taustinon 19 Jul 2010 at 9:10 pm

    This could be a good thing. It’s certainly easier for kids to experimetn with .mp3s than actual drugs, and as noted, this is utterly harmless. At least some of those kids will get the idea that “getting high” is pointless and boring, and avoid spending their hard-stolen cash from mom’s purse on worthless pot. And some parents might well discover their children have issues that need to be addressed without having an actual drug addiction to fight.

    On the other hand, I may read too many conspiracy theory web sites.

  8. agoodreadon 19 Jul 2010 at 9:17 pm

    My guess is that the biggest cause of these teens turning to drugs is having parents dumb enough to believe in digital drugs. Seriously though, another non issue that can take time and resources away from a real issue. Besides wasting resources on combating some non existant threat, this could actually take away resources that could be used to study the effects of drug use and to create ways to treat drug addiction.

  9. addisontreeon 20 Jul 2010 at 12:47 am

    Given the complete lack of any plausible mechanism and the complete absence of evidence there is no reason to even suspect that aural stimulation (aka “digital drugs”) will have long term physiological effects (other than hearing loss if one has the volume on the headphones too loud).

    Do you suppose that the irresponsible media sensationalism could have a measurable “nocebo” effect? In other words suppose I convince some group of randomly selected people (Group A) that something they are doing is a “gateway” to experimenting with more harmful recreational drugs. Then I have another group of randomly selected people (Group B) engage in the same behavior but without describing the “gateway” effect. Would we expect to see more experimentation with harmful recreational drugs in Group A than Group B?

    In other words, could this “News 9” story actually be causing harm by simply creating a self-fulfilling prophecy? If we have a reasonable expectation that such a nocebo effect could exist then this story becomes even more irresponsible …

  10. ccbowerson 20 Jul 2010 at 1:50 am


    I’m not sure that what you are saying makes sense with respect to the nocebo effect. The concept is used when referring to expected adverse effects from a treatment (usually vague feelings of ill, headache, or nausea/vomiting at the extreme). If someone is trying to “get high” from music, then they would want that effect. Its not a negative effect in their eyes, so if anything its a placebo effect.

    Unless you are arguing that people doing this are trying to avoid drugs. I would think the opposite is true… these would be kids most interested in experimenting with their consciousness.

    In all, I don’t think this reporting will add up to much. Just sensationalism to add to slow news days in local news.

  11. ellazimmon 20 Jul 2010 at 3:01 am

    Loved the inadvertent pun (which you’ve fixed but I saw in my RSS feed:

    “. . . hear is a quick overview . . . “

  12. djfavon 20 Jul 2010 at 3:27 am

    Interesting. I hadn’t heard of binaural beats before, but now that I know what the effect is called, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard it or something similar. My drug of choice is electronic music, specifically electro house. Side-effects may include the sudden urge to dance.

    I’ll add this to the list of sound experiments I’d like to do, but first in line is music and sound using algorithms.

  13. Pinkyon 20 Jul 2010 at 5:18 am

    By all accounts and purposes someone is making a killing of this.

    I went to one of the first websites from a web search and the tracks were selling for $9.99 USD, on special from $14.99.

    They had names like ‘Pain killers’ and ‘Weight loss’ accompanied with weighty claims such as “Immediate relief with any kind of pain.”

    Site should be shut down and owner charged with fraud.

  14. wertyson 20 Jul 2010 at 10:17 am

    @Steven R

    This should be reported in the literature as the first instance of an ND saying something doesn’t work !!

    Oh that’s right, they don’t make any money off it, so it mustn’t work

  15. stompsfrogson 20 Jul 2010 at 11:32 am

    @ Pinky:

    Most teenagers are internet savvy enough to google “free binaural beats.” I typed “free bin” and google prompted me with the correct suggestion, and came back with about 799,000 results (0.17 seconds)

    Anyone with a credit card stupid enough to buy something they could get for free…. they were almost definitely going to spend it on something worthless anyway *coughHomeopathycough*

    Seriously, if it did get you high and not hurt you, why would we get all hysterical about it anyway?

  16. agentlionon 20 Jul 2010 at 12:20 pm

    @locutusbrg – i’ve had the same experience from hearing news stories, except when they are about my own fields of study: computer science, electrical engineering, general IT stories. Whenever I hear a story about the internet or a new chip or almost anything about any tech company, I can nearly always pick out blatant errors, or facts that were oversimplified for a non-tech audience to such an extreme as to make them meaningless.

    Knowing that there are errors in every story where I have deep knowledge in has really made me aware and skeptical of stories where I have no particular knowledge or experience in. For example, when I hear bio-medical or chemistry related stories, everything may sound good from my standpoint, but I know if I were to listen to it with an expert in those fields they would find holes all over it.

  17. delictuscoelion 20 Jul 2010 at 7:05 pm

    What is interesting about binaural beats is that the brain essentially hallucinates the expexted acoustic effect of two slightly out of tune pitches sounding at the same time.

    From what I’ve been able to determine via web searches, binaural beats do appear to have a sedative effect on par with meditation, which is unsurprising considering the subject is focusing on the sound to the exclusion of other stimuli. The claim that they can imitate the effects of specific drugs is laughable, but I will admit that when I tried the sample file on wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binaural_beats) I seem to have felt both sedation and (perhaps more interestingly) stimulation as the frequency of the beat sped up at the end. Almost certainly had nothing to do with brain waves…after all, who hasn’t felt energized by an exciting up-tempo piece of music?

  18. addisontreeon 20 Jul 2010 at 9:15 pm


    Your right. Didn’t take the time to think that through and state it clearly.

    I was trying to suggest that given a behavior (like listening to “digital drugs”) that is physically innocuous, societal expectations can, through psychological effects, induce truly harmful behaviors.

    I’ve always been a bit apprehensive about the whole “gateway to drugs” phrase. Over the last few decades I’ve seen the media brand all sorts of substances as “gateways” (including coffee). The phrase implies a causal link where there is at best only a correlation.

    If some group of credulous people believe they have been engaging in “gateway” behavior for years, wouldn’t (at least some of them) be less likely to exercise caution when deciding to engage in riskier behaviors? They’ve been taught that the decision has already been made; they’re “gateway” behavior has destined them to engage in chain of behaviors with escalating dangers. They would be less likely to internally take responsibility for their choices because they’ve been taught (and believe) that the choice is no longer theirs.

    Maybe this kind of effect doesn’t happen. I’m not aware of any studies on it (and I’m not sure how one could create such a study ethically) but the mechanism seems plausible (at least to me). So this kind of fear-mongering news story seems to me like it can cause genuine harm.

    BTW: I’m not trying to say all recreational drug use is inherently harmful. (Recreational drug use is a very complicated topic and can’t really be summed up so succinctly.) But many recreational drugs can be used in manners that are detrimental to the person using them. If the “gateway” meme causes some people to experiment more recklessly, then wouldn’t those people be much more likely to engage in truly harmful patterns of use?

  19. daffodil0127on 21 Jul 2010 at 12:11 am

    If the binaural beats are designed to change brain wave patterns, and changing brain wave patterns will not change one’s state of mind (as state of mind can change a brain wave pattern) then taking supplements like l-theanine, which is supposed to induce theta waves, is not likely to be effective. I was under the impression that that particular supplement which has been studied pretty extensively in Japan (it is a major component of green tea) actually does produce a sort of alert relaxation associated with theta waves. Sorry to go off topic-it was that state of mind leads to brain wave patterns and not the other way around that made me think of it.

  20. wmdkittyon 22 Jul 2010 at 5:01 am

    @taustin — “Worthless pot”? I have Cerebral Palsy, and find that cannabis is highly useful to control my spasticity and my joint pain. So, for me, it sure as hell isn’t “worthless”.

    And on a second note — heh — there is no such thing as a “gateway drug” or “gateway behavior”, nor is cannabis “addictive”. Caffeine, on the other hand, is highly addictive, potentially lethal, and perfectly legal.

  21. jerry0065on 22 Jul 2010 at 8:19 pm

    FREE I-dose relief software was featured on radikal.com.tr! It quickly and easily de-activates the affects of i-dose: http://getir.net/2zb

  22. magra178on 05 Aug 2010 at 12:17 am

    I’m so glad our excellent local news made it across country to you! Go Tulsa! I shared your post with family and friends, and we’re getting a kick out of this story! I’m sorry I missed the original showing, I usually watch that station, but may need to consider switching.

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