Music Is the Drug
Music has been used as a tool for spiritual exploration and mind expansion for millennia, from shamanistic drum-circle ceremonies to more modern rituals involving lava lamps, blacklight posters, and Dark Side of the Moon. Yet in most of these situations, music is just one dish at the brain-tweaking buffet, working in concert with visual stimuli and, perhaps most importantly, psychoactive substances, be it peyote in the tribe or hash brownies in the basement. Music’s role is usually thought of as either enhancing the drug experience or an entertainment enhanced by the drug – back in my Phish-loving days, I certainly saw my share of bands that must’ve been relying heavily on their audience’s manipulated mental state to supplement their objective lack of talent.
“Music is the drug” is usually just a slogan for straight-edge kids and raver t-shirts, but occasionally a Sharper Image product or ringtone company comes along preaching that music itself has the ability to change our mental state. These claims range from the reasonable (soothing tones to relax and induce sleep) to the far-fetched, with enterprises claiming to sell music or sounds that can cause out-of-body experiences, hypnosis, or even effects similar to recreational drugs. The latest of these to make the Internet rounds is a company called I-Doser, who foolishly tempt an Apple lawsuit while advertising the ability of their audio “doses” to influence brainwaves and simulate drug effects. In their usual subtle and mediated manner, some local news organizations have pounced upon this minor trend, with one reporter wondering “could it be the new gateway drug?”
Of course, before we start bellowing “what about the children!?!?!” from the rooftops, it may be prudent to consider whether the claims of I-Doser and similar establishments are at all feasible; namely, that music or particular sounds truly produce, as they claim, “euphoria, sedation, and hallucination.” The I-Doser store contains downloadable files for experiences like “peyote,” “marijuana,” and “nitrous,” not to mention more benign experiences like “French Roast” and mysterious items I really don’t want to know about like “masochist” and “A-bomb.” I-Doser’s friendly-toned FAQ seems reasonable enough, with typical claims of the product being “proven” and “scientific” and reassurances that all “doses” are tested by an experienced “panel of users” in the “I-Doser Lab.” You can even find out what headphones the official I-Doser scientists use when testing I-Doser brand products!
Like most pseudoscience outlets, I-Doser bases their claims in a genuine scientific observation – the curious phenomenon of binaural beats – and pushes its applicability and relevance just far enough to sound pretty damn amazing while remaining surface-level believable. Binaural beats and tones were discovered in the early 19th century, and represent a strange audio artifact that occurs when two tones very close together in frequency are played simultaneously, one in each ear. These two tones then produce a “ghost” third tone, which is perceived to be at the frequency between the two original tones. For example, if you were played a 255 Hz and a 265 Hz tone at the same time, you’d hear a 260 Hz tone…assuming you have a finely calibrated musical ear, of course (it’s roughly middle C). This tone would also oscillate in volume at 10 Hz, the difference between the two original frequencies.
If this all sounds like those weird hearing tests they gave you in grade school (“is the tone on the left or the right?”), bear with me. People can’t actually hear a 10 Hz frequency (sonic perception usually bottoms out around 20 Hz), but such slow frequencies are considered to be physiologically relevant to brain function, as they are the firing rates picked up by electroencephalograms, or EEGs. Another brain phenomenon known as “entrainment” suggests that presenting a person with stimuli, like a strobe light or our binaural beats, oscillating at a biologically relevant frequency can cause the brain, impressionable organ that it is, to follow suit.
Okay, so now we may be getting somewhere: namely, binaural beats, by generating certain very low subsonic frequencies that are significant for mental processes, may be able to inspire the brain to change its firing patterns. Now, don’t get me started on the relative uselessness of EEGs – they’re basically good for either telling you a person is having a seizure or whether or not an anesthetic is working; almost nothing can be said from them about the localization of brain activity or the nature of the firing neurons (essentially, their fidelity is reminiscent of an early Guided by Voices record). However, certain frequencies are associated (very coarsely) with certain mental states: the lowest, delta, is seen in people while asleep, while higher-frequency beta and gamma waves are seen in awake, functioning folks.
What most of the commercial binaural beat crowd is interested in is a range of frequencies known as the theta wave, relatively low (4-7 Hz) frequencies associated with EEG recordings during dreams, meditation, and hypnosis. The actual functional significance of neuron firing at this rate remains mysterious – it appears that theta rhythms are significant in brain network changes associated with learning and memory, but, pshhh, that shit is bor-ing. Other studies have found correlations between increased firing in the theta range and hallucinations, albeit in schizophrenics, which isn’t exactly the trip you probably want to replicate. Studies have looked at EEGs in people (and other species) during marijuana, LSD, and stimulant use and seen the dreaded conflicting results: chronic marijuana and methamphetamine have been seen to increase theta rhythms (but so has stress), while LSD “disrupts” theta firing, and artificially stimulating drug-trained rats with a theta rhythm produces relapse to cocaine taking.
Even if a definite connection between theta rhythms and drug effects could be characterized, one would still have to prove that binaural beats can actually manipulate theta rhythms to artificially induce these effects. Published studies on the mood and behavioral effects of binaural beats aren’t yet ambitious enough to test exciting stuff like I-Doser’s “JuiceIT!” simulated steroid dose, but have looked at the ability of this phenomenon to entrain brain frequencies, with, again, mixed results. A study in a pretty reputable journal looked at the ability of two different binaural beats (one in the theta range, one in the beta range) to affect performance on a simple computer game, concluding that the beta beats increased performance while the theta beats decreased it. Researchers also found an increase in confusion, bewilderment, and fatigue in the theta group, which, combined with poor video game performance, certainly sounds like some stoner dudes I knew in college, yet is a far cry from conclusively showing a replication of recreational drug effects.
With no examples from the scientific literature to go on, there was only one other line of inquiry open to me: the time-honored tradition of self-experimentation. I-Doser helpfully provides two free doses for download (several more if you sign away your e-mail address), so I chose the free “Alcohol” sample and followed the directions as well as I could, reclining on a couch in a dimly-lit room with no distractions. Cueing up the file, I heard what sounded like a white-noise waterfall in the distance while two people on either side of me did the blowing across the top of a beer bottle trick without pause; in other words, The Wire’s album of the year. 35 minutes later, I didn’t feel any drunker, though I did almost fall asleep a few times, which is a pretty common symptom after more than 3 or 4 beers. But no motor effects, no speech slurring, no sudden desire to dance to “Toxic,” nothing but a pleasant feeling of relaxation from lying on a couch for a half hour (if only I could market that phenomenon).
Of course, I-Doser has built several outs into their FAQ tutorial: 1) I may be what they call Immune to Binaural Beats (which may or may not be related to my nine years studying neuroscience), 2) I may have inferior headphones, or 3) I may just not have been patient enough. More likely, it was just that I didn’t believe in the power of I-Doser; the provocative file names and accompanying logos are both fine triggers for a placebo effect in people eager to give the method several times to do its trick, especially to justify the $3 they spent on “Absinthe.”
In the end, I-Doser’s claims require too many ifs to hold up to scrutiny. If binaural beats can truly entrain the brain to fire more often at certain frequencies, and if those frequencies are involved in any way with the perceptual effects of recreational drugs, and if you fall into the Susceptible to Binaural Beats category (whatever that entails physiologically), and if you have the right equipment and environment, maybe it will work. Most problematic is that second if, as any frequency change associated with a drug like marijuana or LSD is likely to be only one of that drug’s many effects upon brain and body. It’s a bit like saying that because heroin constricts pupils, any other manipulation that constricts pupils (like say, shining a flashlight in your eye) should replicate the full sensation of shooting up.
Personally, as someone who will be a parent someday, I’d have no problem with my kid experimenting with such auditory substances; any activity that gets them to sit quietly in their room for 35 minutes sounds good to me. If they want to think that snorting crack feels like listening to Metal Machine Music, all the better – I can’t think of a better drug deterrent.
Ortolani E, de Maria G, Palazzesi S. 1986. Naloxone and propranolol inhibit the disruption of the hippocampal theta waves induced by D-lysergic acid diethylamide in the rabbit. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 24(2): 183-6.
Struve FA, Patrick G, Straumanis JJ, Fitz-Gerald MJ, Manno J. 1998. Possible EEG sequelae of very long duration marihuana use: pilot findings from topographic quantitative EEG analyses of subjects with 15 to 24 years of cumulative daily exposure to THC. Clin Electroencephalogr. 29(1): 31-6.
Wahbeh H, Calabrese C, Zwickey H, Zajdel D. 2007. Binaural beat technology in humans: a pilot study to assess neuropsychologic, physiologic, and electroencephalographic effects. J Altern Complement Med. 13(2): 199-206.Yamamoto J. 1998. Relationship between hippocampal theta-wave frequency and emotional behaviors in rabbits produced with stresses or psychotropic drugs. Jpn J Pharmacol. 76(1): 125-7.
Waterfalls of text are produced every day about music’s aesthetic properties, but rarely is this ancient form of human communication addressed on a scientific level. Stereolab’s purpose is to investigate the places where music and science intersect, profiling research into clinical applications of the art form, explaining what we’ve found about its effects upon mind and body, and talking to musicians with science backgrounds and vice versa. Please: no Thomas Dolby references.