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).

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