Stern: I get high with a little help from my MP3s

Like many of you, I got high this weekend. But it wasn’t from weed — it was from audible drugs, made with online music software.

As Generation Y, we have grown up in a digital age in which nearly all of our desires were available at the click of a button. The market for products, information and technology has broadened enormously over the past decade. Every day, this expansion brings us a little closer to crossing the material boundary and obtaining non-tangible goods over the internet — we can now find love, consultation, friends and even war in virtual reality.

One emerging field is recreational drugs gone digital. Internet users can now listen to music tracks called “i-doses,” that claim to satisfy their emotional cravings and modify their mood or mental state through rhythmic beats.

The scientific rationale of audible drugs involves the brain’s reaction to tones of different frequencies called binaural beats. When one frequency is played into the right ear and a slightly different frequency into the left ear, the brain infers one single tone from the two binary audible beats. The inference process creates a “high” sensation that simulates the influence of narcotic drugs.

Curious, I decided to experiment on www.i-doser.com. Using my “one free stream” of binaural beats, I clicked on “Opium.” I started optimistic that the music sample would take me to a place of pleasure, relaxation and anxiety relief (especially from the two papers I had to write), but in the end I finished irritated about wasting 30 minutes listening to what sounded like the reverberations after one tap on a tuning fork.

Am I a freak because I cannot get high from the resonance of two metal prongs? I felt so after watching supposedly unfeigned YouTube videos of other i-dosers getting high. There were clips of i-dose listeners screaming, leaping out of their seats, shaking violently and even cringing in what looked like serious distress.

Despite these potential side effects, curiosity is sending kids to proprietary audio content online in droves. Since there is little substantiated evidence for audible drugs, it has the appeal of ambiguity that teens crave. I-dose leaders capitalize on the innately curious and experimental personality of adolescent kids by charging upwards of $9.99 per track.

This luring façade is also what makes the “drugs” especially harmful — i-doses are presented to teens as imitators of narcotics. In fact, many of the tracks are named after prohibited recreational drugs. The parity is continued with stock art designs that reference drug effects: a blurred face picture for “Acid” and a woman chewing on her own hair for “Heroin” (a Fiona Apple allusion). Some even claim to produce effects such as out-of-body experiences, hallucinations or “prolonged sexual encounters.” By heightening the desire for sensations, i-dose companies may be creating a virtual gateway drug.

But the drug references are not the thing that scares me most about i-dosing. The digital drugs also promise to solve users’ emotional issues. According to the Washington Post, a 13-year-old i-doser admitted to “zoning out” using audible drugs instead of talking about a recent conflict with his brother. After their fight, the boy ran inside to his laptop and downloaded “Quick Happy,” reporting that it almost immediately made him feel less angry. These bent implications can also give false hope to those in desperate need of medical help and thus cause serious harm. Tracks that raise a red flag in this way are those named with titles like: “Stop Alcohol Abuse,” “Quit Smoking,” “Weight Loss” and “Anti-depressant. ”

But audible drugs are not entirely bad. They could be seen as an escape from our pharmaceutical-drug-infested culture. If an MP3 file of birds chirping can help someone quit their pack-a-day habit or calm their violent aggression, why stop them? Likewise, if teenagers are going to experiment with drugs regardless of what they are told, maybe it is better to let them use this safer auditory means than ingesting, sniffing, smoking or injecting chemicals. Last, for the moment we can rest assured that adolescents will not develop physical addictions, withdrawal symptoms or hangovers to the i-dose tracks. But this is only for the moment — we still need to research whether or not even digital material can change our body chemistry.

The concept of binary audible beats has some valid scientific roots as well. Music is known to alter emotional states and promote good feelings — the same ones we feel when seeing a cute puppy or a sunset. Musicians produce notoriously aesthetic “drone music” using binaural beats specifically. Binary audible beats have also been correlated to mental performance and certain mood responses. A study from Oregon Health and Science University found that people who listened to binaural beats every day reported feeling less anxious and having an improved quality of life. Research trials have successfully used them as pain relievers, and others have harnessed them as a meditation aid.

These results could be simply due to the physical relaxation and peace that accompanies listening to music. But so what? Proponents argue that if the technique inspires people to take a break from their hectic lifestyle, cell phone vibrations and traffic noise, then no one can challenge the i-dose community. To critics, they say: put that in your PA and smoke it.

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