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Keeping track of ‘audio drugs’

  • Audios marketed as ‘digital drugs’ claim to produce the same effects as mind-altering psychedelics. Are they harmful?
  • These tracks—available on YouTube and platforms like I-Doser—claim to recreate the same effects as certain drugs that alter states of mind

At present, audio drugs are not restricted. Even after turning on the ‘restricted mode’ on YouTube, there are no warnings and these tracks can still be played
At present, audio drugs are not restricted. Even after turning on the ‘restricted mode’ on YouTube, there are no warnings and these tracks can still be played

It’s 2014. I am in my room. I am binge-watching silly videos (these are the pre-Netflix years in India). By midnight, I have gone too far into the dark side of YouTube. A video pops up. Like any other 20-year-old, I am curious: I plug in my headphones and hit play.

At first it seems like I am listening to vibrations that I can feel inside my head. A few minutes in, I am sceptical that it can do anything beyond that. But then I read “WHY IS EVERYTHING PINK" in a comment and decide to keep going.

I lie down and shut my eyes. I am calm... perhaps a bit too much. I open my eyes after what feels like an eternity—it has been 15 minutes. The vibrations are stronger now.

I get up abruptly. My foot feels cold. I touch it. It’s freezing, I scream internally. Panic-stricken, I remove my headphones and put my phone away. I am spooked out for the rest of the night, comparing the temperature of my feet obsessively.

By morning, curiosity has washed away the horror. My classmates are baffled: You “tripped" on a digital drug?

The subject of psychoactive drugs sparks scientific curiosity about the human brain and the marvel that is the conscious mind. Many such substances—like the Colombian “devil’s breath" used for robbery or the deadlier-than-heroin “Krokodil" home-cooked in Russia using headache pills—are perplexing and unheard of, and they only keep getting more bizarre. Into the fray come “digital drugs".

Audio tracks marketed as “digital" or “audio drugs" have been on the internet for a while. These tracks—available on YouTube and leading producer I-Doser Labs’ website—claim to produce the same effects as drugs such as cannabis, cocaine, LSD, MDMA, and scores of others that alter states of mind.

But do they really work? What are they, and can they be harmful?

Digital drugs are essentially audio files that generate binaural beats—an auditory illusion in the brain. Delhi-based neurologist Manoj Khanal explains: “They are ambient sounds or pure tones transmitted through headphones, a slightly different frequency in each ear. This is combined by the brain and it forms a new frequency called the binaural beat." It would be a bit of a stretch to call it music, he adds. “Binaural beats therapy", which is increasingly used as an adjuvant in treating stress and anxiety, and to aid sleep and meditation, is based on the same concept. These audios, too, are available online and can be considered calmer versions of digital drugs as they affect moods differently.

Although there is some science backing the calming effects of binaurals, there is no supporting evidence for digital drugs. And experts are wary of the latter.

“I first learnt about binaural beats while studying sound engineering. I experimented with producing them; I created two sine wave frequencies and separated them by 1 hertz. The effect was nothing crazy, but I used them to meditate. It would give me a pace to keep my breathing steady," says producer Amrith Raghunathan (aka Doc.Awes), who has worked for artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Madonna and Coldplay.

Raghunathan calls digital drugs “just a marketing tactic", though personal accounts report mild to strong experiences. Deep-diving into YouTube can offer a glimpse of this. There are many such tracks. There’s distorted, multicoloured psychedelic artwork for thumbnails, and views ranging from 800,000 to 125 million for the first few on the list. The comments section is where listeners describe in detail their seemingly unique but shared experiences.

For a binaural beats track that’s supposed to induce a cannabis high of the “purple haze" strain (808,000 views), the most common effect reported was light-headedness, while some 500 listeners agreed with (username) Pearls Perfect, who says, “I accidentally paused it and felt empty inside." Other effects like laughter for no apparent reason, eye twitching, paranoia and limbs getting heavier were also widely reported. For another track (1.4 million views), which claims to replicate an “acid trip" (with an all-caps warning in the title), most listeners reported feeling mild or no after-effects (beeping, buzzing and robot sounds) lasting a few minutes. These effects do not come close to those of LSD.

Hip hop producer Sajeel Kapoor (aka Sez on the Beat) used binaurals on the i-Doser app around four-five years ago. He had bought a few of their premium tracks. “For me, it was just that constant sound, that pattern, which helped me focus while meditating. Once I was able to focus without the audio, I stopped using the app," he recalls. Like Raghunathan, he too believes that the creators are taking themselves too seriously when it comes to marketing.

Nimish Gupta, a psychiatrist at the Central Institute of Psychiatry, Ranchi, explains why such tracks may work for some people. “The effects of music on the mind are well-established: They affect our emotions and moods. Though not the same, these digital drugs are curated keeping in mind the effects of the specific drug/state of mind linked with them," says Gupta. “So sometimes, the binaural beats coupled with the high power of suggestibility and the placebo effect lead to experiences that people then correlate with their actual experience of getting high."

The placebo effect is a psychological phenomenon wherein the brain convinces the body to bring forth changes or effects when it’s told to do so via a treatment, medicine, or any other medium. According to an article published by Harvard Health Publishing in 2017, under the right circumstances, placebos can be just as effective as traditional treatments.

Delhi-based Om Prakash, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Institute of Human Behaviour and Allied Sciences (Ihbas) and consultant in adult and geriatric psychiatry, says: “People can get addicted to almost anything, be it junk food or such binaural tracks. They might not realize it but it takes over the neural pathways. So we should be careful what we indulge in. Most of these tracks promote cannabis, so do many companies these days, in a concealed attempt to make its usage mainstream. So anything of this sort can be potentially harmful, but we will have to wait till science establishes it first."

He favours the work that’s being done through binaural beats therapy. “It works well to aid meditation and sleep, and can be useful for people struggling with stress, anxiety and depressive states."

In a study which was presented at the International Ambulatory Surgery Congress in Seville, Spain, on 26 April 2005 by researchers R. Padmanabhan, A. J. Hildreth, and D. Laws, binaural beats audio (used in binaural beats therapy) was found to be successful in decreasing pre-operative anxiety in adult patients undergoing general anaesthesia. Research in 1997 by the Duke University Medical Centre, US, showed that binaural audio affected task performance and mood in volunteers.

A few years ago, Saudi Arabia’s drug control bodies tried to contain the reach of digital drugs. In 2012, a police scientist in the United Arab Emirates called for this “hypnotic music" to be banned, considering it a gateway to actual drugs.

At present, audio drugs are not restricted. Even after turning on the “restricted mode" on YouTube, there are no warnings and these tracks can still be played.

Khanal, however, believes their use should be restricted. “We should keep a watch on what people, especially children, are being exposed to. Tracks that mimic drugs or simulate specific/various altered states of mind could be harmful."

In the same vein, Gupta says: “It has the potential to make drug use and drug culture more mainstream. So it’s necessary to have such discussions to create awareness and to sensitize the young, vulnerable crowd that may experiment with audio drugs."

Sana Naaz is a Pune-based editor and freelance journalist.

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