The new kick from audio files

Are virtual drugs dangerous?

Since time immemorial, monotonous sounds and rhythms have been used to help people escape from banal reality and to transport themselves to other worlds. Shamans have always used drum beats and sacred songs to put themselves in a trance and then to enter spheres where they could communicate with helpful spirits in order to heal the sick, make prophecies etc.

But these activities, which are useful to the community, have nothing in common with the new music drugs that, via headphones, channel users’ brain waves into states that simulate intoxication. So-called I-Dosers, applications aimed at encouraging the consumption of virtual drugs, bear highly promising names suggesting guaranteed success. They go by names such as “weed”, “coke” and “heroin” and can, for example, be downloaded via iTunes. This digital state of intoxication via a headset is said to be induced by means of pulsating sounds and rhythmic impulses. The constant feeding of electric currents in the form of rhythmic, monotonous inputs can then lead to a kind of shorting of the brain’s circuits. This gives the user the kind of feelings that simulate the consumption of drugs such as ecstasy or heroin. The producers of these sound files claim that they can imitate the effects of different intoxicants – an assertion that is more than daring. After all, it does not seem possible that anybody could be in a position to transfer the specific effect of a drug to certain sequences of sounds and frequencies.

Fashion or gateway drug?

The simulation of a state similar to intoxication such as I-Dosers claim is in reality an old chestnut. It is based on an effect discovered as long ago as 1839 by a German physicist, Heinrich Wilhelm Dove. If, wearing headphones, you hear a different sound in each ear but the two frequencies are similar, this deceives your brain into thinking that you are hearing a single pulsating sound. This is produced by something known as the binaural beats. According to the American scientific magazine Psycho logy Today, dubious providers advertise by saying that the binaural beats stimulate the body’s own production of euphoria-inducing opiates, called endorphins, and that the neurotransmitter dopamine released when we feel happy is also activated. Today, we cannot yet say to what extent the effects of these audio files really are comparable with real drug rushes or whether they are, to a considerable extent, due to the high expectations of I-Doser users, since as yet, there has been too little experience with this new addiction phenomenon.

We can only hope that download drugs are a passing fad. One argument in favor of this is the comments of users who do not sound particularly enthusiastic about the experience. One user wrote in an online chat room: “I must say that if you listen to this kind of thing in a darkened room with your eyes shut it does trigger something inside you.” Somebody else answered: “Did not react in that way. Not at all. It always depends on the person. Was very calm but afterwards you do feel strange. But I do think that for most people imagination plays a decisive role.” A third person was even more dismissive: “Well, I think it’s rubbish. I did it once and I felt no effects afterwards except a headache.” This kind of negative experience supports the opinion of neurologist Professor Ludwig Kappos of the University Hospital in Basle. In answer to the question as to whether these audio drugs have dangerous effects, he replied: “There are not yet any scientific studies on the subject, but I can’t imagine so.”

State institutions involved

By contrast, those state institutions involved in the fight against drug abuse have responded with great alarm. Swiss National Councilor Barbara Schmid-Federer primarily complains about the fact that young people have no difficulty in accessing the controversial files and she demands that “providers such as Apple be held responsible.” Since it is currently the case that I-Dosers are experiencing a boom among teenagers in the United States, there are plans to take them off the market there. Addiction expert Mark Woodward of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in Oklahoma justifies the prohibition of acoustic drugs with the argument that they could become gateway drugs. He says: “We need to step in immediately. Interest in the range on offer indicates an increased willingness to experiment with real drugs as well.” This danger cannot be dismissed lightly. There is a particularly high risk among the core target group, namely young people going through puberty. Brain researchers have discovered that during this critical stage of development, the reward system, which is responsible for the release of endorphins, is much better developed than the prefrontal cortex, which suppresses excessive emotions and is responsible for measured actions. Accordingly, any young people interested in trying acoustic drugs should take to heart the appeal made by an I-Doser user who posted the following comment on the Internet: “My friends, don’t listen to that music. It just leads to heroin.”

Anno Bachem

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