How a Sound Hack Called ‘Binaural Beats’ Is Helping People Get Happy, Horny, and High

Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

Ian Griffiths, a 36-year-old school custodian in Massachusetts, said he started warming to spirituality when his dad had a near-death experience and was saved by what he can only describe as fate. Since then, in order to achieve an altered state of higher consciousness and explore the spiritual world, Griffiths started meditating and turned to YouTube and Spotify to listen to “binaural beats”—a term used to describe auditory illusions that occur when you play two different tones in each ear.

“I believe you can reach a high consciousness that feels like something drug related,” Griffiths told The Daily Beast. “1,000 percent. With continuous practice of it too.” In fact, he uses binaural beats every night before going to sleep.

“When you [listen to] binaural beats, you can immediately feel it,” Griffiths added. “This is just the power of sound alone. You have to be in the right state of mind in order to believe that this stuff actually does its job, but I believe that it will be taking over medications.”

Although Griffiths has been sober for 14 years, he has used psychedelic mushrooms in the past, and is adamant that binaural beats are a similar form of natural high. Other binaural beat users have also compared the experience to microdosing on shrooms—albeit, it’s not a talk-to-Smurfs-in-the-woods kind of shroom high. Rather, it’s a controlled and inventive one that can allow you to access creative head spaces you’re not easily privy to in everyday life.

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This isn’t news to binaural beat aficionados. In fact, research conducted by Australia’s RMIT University found that 12 percent of survey respondents use binaural beats like they would use psychedelic drugs (either in conjunction with other drug use or in place of it), 35 percent to change their mood, and 72 percent to relax or fall asleep. People who use binaural beats to get high are often already well-versed in the world of psychedelics, or have tried psychedelics before. They also tend to be younger—interest peaked among 16- to 20-year-olds, and then again at 45 years of age.

“We can’t, for example, say binaural beats actually [get you high]. We don’t know that,” Alexia Maddox, a sociologist of technology at Deakin University in Australia and one of the lead authors of this paper, told The Daily Beast. “What we do know is that people are using it to alter their states and to connect with themselves, and also to connect, with a higher force or like into that more spiritual space. So it’s quite interesting.”

Her study, which drew on answers from more than 30,000 people in 22 different countries, was published last month in Drug and Alcohol Review. However, the scientific jury is still out on whether binaural beats can actually get you high like psychedelics, or whether it’s just a matter of placebo. Despite this, scholars believe this phenomenon has the ability to radically change our understanding of what drugs even are.

When you’re hearing sounds in the real world, one ear always processes it before the other one. Your brain is trained to understand sound that way, and figure out where it comes from. “Binaural beats disrupt our brain’s efforts to localize sound,” Lachlan Goold, a lecturer in contemporary music at University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia and one of the audio expert advisors on the recently published paper, told The Daily Beast.

Playing two different but very similar frequencies, no greater than 30Hz difference, exclusively to each ear creates a specific modulation. The sound slowly cycles between being out of phase—when two different tones are on different parts of their wave causing it to sound really wide and almost disappear—to being completely in phase and merging to sound louder, Goold explains. This causes a “third tone” inside your brain, which only you can hear. In theory, this tone can be used to synchronize your brainwaves on a desired wavelength. There can be a limit, though. Goold hasn’t ever used binaural beats for a prolonged amount of time because he finds the out-of-phase information draining.

These illusionary tones have been known for quite a while with some evidence suggesting they were discovered in the 1800s, but its popularity has grown in recent years, according to Australia RMIT University’s findings. As its popularity waxes and wanes, over time, it’s also encountered detractors. In 2010, various local news outlets reported that teenagers at a high school in Oklahoma appeared to be intoxicated on digital drugs at school. The Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs even got involved. In Dubai, UAE, the authorities also quickly grew adamant on banning digital drugs in 2012, saying they should be dealt with like cannabis and ecstasy. Authorities in Lebanon soon followed suit. The biggest concern here, authorities said, is that digital drugs could result as a gateway drug to real-life, chemical drugs—especially given their wide ranging accessibility for younger listeners.

In fact, a quick browse through streaming apps like YouTube, Spotify, or Soundcloud can provide a wide variety of binaural beats. Some are meant designed to help people study and focus. Others are supposed to increase sexual arousal. And others are supposed to help induce psychedelic trips. There are some tracks marketed as “binaural music,” with added melodies and natural sounds. You can also download a binaural beats app for your phone such as the popular I-Doser.

Yet, researchers remain skeptical about whether the online beats are as good as the lab-made ones—or if it’s any good at all. “There seems to be a large gap between clinical binaural beats and those marketed online,” Goold said. “I certainly think the variability of what’s out there makes the efficacy conversation far more confusing than it already is after varied clinical trials over the last 50 years.”

Whether binaural beats work in the lab or in the real world is still quite up in the air. For example, a meta-analysis of 22 studies on the effect of binaural beats found a statistically significant and consistent effect on memory, attention, anxiety, and pain relief—with a bigger dose of exposure increasing the effectiveness. But other studies have found the opposite. An analysis on binaural beats and attention didn’t find positive effects, and neither did a 2020 study looking at whether beats could impact cognitive performance or mood change.

In fact, despite the promising research, there’s still not a lot known about binaural beats and the potential effects. Regardless, it remains a simple, noninvasive way of stimulating the brain by neural entrainment, a term for when your brainwaves sync with the wavelengths of the music you’re listening to, Joydeep Bhattacharya, professor of psychology at Goldsmiths University in London, told The Daily Beast. “However, this entrainment may vary on the individual, mood, brain states, stimulation frequency, and their interactions,” said Bhattacharya. “So robust effects of binaural beats remain elusive so far.”

“Placebo plays a big role here,” as it does for psychedelics and especially for microdosing, added Bhattacharya. But users like Griffiths don’t necessarily agree. Even if it were just placebo, binaural beat users are reaching their intended goal of getting high anyways. That, in itself, is a powerful thing.

In the long run, this whole debate opens an entire realm of questions about what a drug even is—and how we can use technology to regulate emotions.

“Some researchers try to find impacts of technology on brain chemicals like dopamine or serotonin,” Greg Wadley, a researcher of human-computer interaction at the University of Melbourne, told The Daily Beast.

But he thinks this is a misapplied metaphor. Instead, we should compare technology and drugs at the functional level—in other words, what functions do people perform with them?

“Then, we observe that people use both technologies and drugs to manage how they feel,” Wadley said.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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