By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 3, 2010; C01
Dangerous gateway drug that will lead your children to a sordid life of addiction? Or . . . New Age Enya soundtrack?!
Teens, in pursuit of their inalienable right to try to get high off of anything that can be ingested, digested or harvested, are apparently now trying to get high off of MP3s. Put that in your PC and smoke it. But first, give it a trendy name.
Call it "i-dosing."
The adolescents can be seen on YouTube, wearing headphones, listening to pulsing soundtracks that supposedly simulate the effects of recreational drugs. They giggle. They gyrate. They flutter their hands in front of their faces.
"Should I try this?" writes one commenter, "Sasha," in response to a video of a boy i-dosing on a soundtrack called "Gates of Hades." So far she's only tried softer i-dosing options, such as digital "marijuana," and she wants to know if she can handle the more intense "Hades" experience.
Parents, in pursuit of their inalienable right to wonder what is happening to kids today, are concerned. Though i-dosing has been around for several years -- known by various terms, such as "digital drugs" -- a March incident in Oklahoma prompted a new wave of concern. The Mustang public school district learned that kids were i-dosing and sent a letter home warning parents to be on the alert. Since then, tech blogs and media outlets have debated the riskiness of the practice, and the software used for playing one company's i-doses was downloaded nearly 29,000 times last week -- more than quadruple what it was a few weeks ago.
What does the National Institute on Drug Abuse have to say?
"At this time, we are aware of no scientific data on this phenomenon," reads a statement, "so NIDA cannot establish the validity of the claim that you can get high listening to these sounds."
* * *
The center of this discussion is I-Doser.com, a Web site that touts itself as "The industry leader in . . . audio doses to powerfully alter your mood." There are other sites like it, though none quite so provocative.
On I-Doser, the digital drugs -- purchased by downloading free software and clicking on individual tracks -- are represented through stock art. "Acid" is a blurred face; "Heroin" is a Fiona Apple look-alike chewing on her own hair.
For $3.95 users can download "Astral," which claims to aid in out-of-body experiences; for $3 they can buy "Extend," which supposedly prolongs sexual encounters. (But what's the point if both partners are wearing noise-canceling headphones?)
I-doses are anywhere from five to 30 minutes long. Press play and what you hear might sound like a wind tunnel, or mating whales, or Yanni.
The effects are made possible, purportedly, through "binaural beats," where a tone of one frequency is played into the right ear and a slightly different frequency is played into the left. Believers say these beats synchronize brain waves, replicating the experience of being high on anything from alcohol to true love.
Binaural beats have been used as a meditation aid for decades. I-Doser's biggest contribution appears to be the dark names -- the way it implies that their products are dangerous, baby, dangerous.
The founder is Nick Ashton, who looks like a sullen underwear model in his Facebook profile picture, who said he would answer questions about I-Doser via e-mail and who -- when presented with such questions as "What is your background?" and "Do you have a degree in a science?" -- stopped responding to e-mails and voice mails.
In the site's FAQs, employees are identified, vaguely, as "underground musicians and tonal experts."
Ambiguity, however, does not prevent customers from sharing their favorite trips in the "user experiences" section of the site.
Alcohol: "I laughed after touching my lip and then I talked and my voice was in three-part harmony."
Lucid Dream: "I washed ashore on an island and found a bunch of dead bodies."
First Love: "I had these images in my head of being kissed and nibbled by Na'vi," the 10-foot-tall blue aliens from "Avatar." "It was absolutely amazing."
Jamie Therrien is only 13 years old, but he's an I-Doser veteran. He learned about binaural beats from YouTube and spent time researching other people's experiences before trying it. Now he i-doses every few weeks, zoning out in front of his computer in Massachusetts, and offering tips to newcomers on the message boards.
"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.
That, and it's difficult to estimate the power of suggestion and a really great placebo.A meditation aid
A binaural believer could argue that Levitin and Wahbeh, scientists that they are, might lack the openness to allow their brains to be taken on a magical mystery tour.
For another expert opinion on whether sites such as I-Doser can replicate illegal substances, we call Carl Harvey. Harvey is a Brit who runs BinauralBeatsGeek.com, sampling beats as if they are fine wines. He favors ones from brands such as Holosync and the Unexplainable Store, and he uses them as calming aids. "It's effectively like meditation, right?" Harvey says. "It allows your brain to slow down."
There is a strong community of users like Harvey, who view binaural beats more like yoga class than Amsterdam's red-light district. They say that binaural beats can help them reach alternate brain-wave levels of alpha, beta and theta.
When Harvey is informed that I-Doser is claiming these meditation aids can be used as narcotic substitutes, he is doubtful -- and agrees to use his trained senses to evaluate the effectiveness of two of i-Doser's bestsellers.
Forty-five minutes later, he sends a disappointing e-mail. In short, they're duds.
"Basically, the cocaine one was just a standard binaural beats program -- and it wasn't even a particularly good one," writes Harvey. "It was a bit of a waste of time."
The marijuana was "slightly more interesting than the cocaine, and I did feel myself experiencing a bit of a 'cloudy head' as I started to doze off a bit."
Harvey says that he would recommend it to anyone looking for a pleasant afternoon nap, but "it's not really gonna get kids 'high.' "
Writes one commenter on YouTube in response to an i-dosing video: "Kids these days are dumber than when I was dumb. I was at least smart enough to really get high instead of dorking around and making myself look like a [twerp] on YouTube."Sample selection
But enough theoretical questioning. It is time for some immersion research, sampling some of I-Doser's wackiest tobacky with our own ears.
Over a 24-hour period, nine Washington Post reporters and friends sampled five different digital drugs from I-Doser.com.
Four felt nothing.
One said that "alcohol" made him feel more mellow.
One said that "caffeine" made her feel slightly refreshed.
One described her "ecstasy" experience as "private."
One described his "opium" experience like "a vacuum cleaner going through the brain, leaving everything spotless."
And one, another "ecstasy" listener, spent 20 minutes with the soundtrack before saying, "Can I stop now? . . . I think that's enough. I feel like I'm about to be transported by aliens. This is the secret way to do alien lobotomies."