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Some call i-dosing a drug substitute, while others say binaural beats fall flat

The Washington Post's Monica Hesse explains how people are claiming to get high from listening to specially-engineered sounds.

"The hallucinogenic ones are the weakest," he says, expertly, but the sedatives and calming doses are pretty effective. Once, when he got in a fight with his brother, he downloaded a pick-me-up called "Quick Happy" and almost immediately felt less angry.

People who fear digital drugs "are sort of right to be concerned, because pretty much anything with 'drugs' in it, you should be concerned about," he says. "But it's a lot less mystical than you might think. They're just stimulating different parts of the brain. . . . I've never seen anyone go from I-Doser to the real thing."

Jamie's mother, Kim Hastings, knows about i-dosing and isn't overly concerned. "If he's found something safe that makes him calm and happy, that's great," she says. Also, she says in the conspiratorial voice of a parent who sees no harm in Santa Claus, "I don't think he's actually getting high."

Looking into the science

Are any users actually getting high? Labeling an MP3 "cocaine" is alarming, but you could call popcorn "cocaine," too, and that wouldn't mean consumers could grind it up and snort it for a buzz.

For guidance, we turn to Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal who studies music's effects on the brain.

In preparation for the morning telephone interview, Levitin confesses, he spent the preceding evening i-dosing on a dozen or so different tracks from several Web sites. "As far as I know, I have not gone crazy," Levitin says. "I am not hung over. I am not on an opium high."

In fact, Levitin says, "the idea that these binaural beats would cause states that would mimic drugs is without scientific foundation. There's just no mechanism that would make that work."

Binaural beats are a real thing, in the sense that they exist. In fact, we hear sounds like them all the time -- like the wahwahwah of a guitar that's slightly out of tune. Musicians often use binaural beats to interesting effect -- there's a whole minimalist genre called "drone music" -- but that's for aesthetics, not for mind alteration.

Researchers at Oregon Health and Science University led a study looking into the effects of binaural beats, measuring the brain-wave activity of people listening to certain frequencies. "There was no increase at all," says Helane Wahbeh, who conducted the research.

A second OHSU study did show some long-term benefits, subjectively speaking. People who listened to binaural beats every day reported feeling less anxious and having an improved quality of life.

"But maybe that was just sitting for an hour" -- having some regular downtime, Wahbeh says. For a plugged-in modern human, the most powerful sensation that binaural beats might replicate is the sensation of doing nothing.

"The other kernel of truth in all of this is that music does have the ability to alter our moods," Levitin says. It is, after all, why most of us listen to it. Our neural chemistry is soothed or uplifted by music the same way that it's affected by looking at puppies or sunsets. Our brains are in constant dialogue with our surroundings, and not just when high.

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