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Silicon dreams: digital drugs and regulation

A new worry has hit parents: digital drugs. The idea is that sounds can affect brain states, so by listening to the right kind of sounds desired brain states can be induced – relaxation, concentration, happiness, PMS relief or why not hallucinations? Apparently "idosers" walk around high on sound. Just the right thing for a summer moral panic – kids, computers, drugs and pseudoscience.

The origin of the idea is research into binaural beats, sending sounds with slightly different frequencies into the ears which then combine into slow "beats" that reputedly affect the brainwaves. People have been experimenting with this since the 1970’s, building various "mind machines" with more or less grand  claims. They were popular with the smart drugs movement in the late 80’s, and with the advent of computers and ubiqitious headphones it has become easy to experience the effect.

Assuming there is an effect. There is some evidence for the basic idea that sounds can entrain brainwaves but the effect is complex. In any case the evidence that extra activity in any particular frequency band will produce a reliable psychological response is practically non-existent. There are a number of small studies, but most do not appear to be very reliable. This is the kind of experience where placebo effect plays an enormous role, so anecdotal claims should not be trusted. The sheer number of
testimonials and companies selling sound machines compared to the handful of peer-reviewed studies should give anyone pause. The evidence for idosers seems to be non-existent, except for YouTube

However, it is not a priori possible to rule out that something like this could work. Music certainly affects our mood. Computer games appear to affect cognition and computer training of working memory may be able to improve fluid intelligence. Given that the brain does not separate its inputs into "real life" and "other", we should expect that just like training and experiences can affect us digital media could also affect us.

This demonstrates a serious flaw in current concerns about drugs: they are tied to the medium rather than the effects. A drug that causes addictive behaviour or wild hallucinations can easily be banned, while a computer game or meditation technique able to achieve the same states would not. Partially this focus on the medium is just because up until now this has always been the bottleneck: ban the chemical,
and the effects cannot be achieved. But banning information (sounds, programs) is much harder to do and enforce, especially since it runs counter to many important rights such as freedom of thought and

People arguing against enhancing drugs on the basis that they might harm authenticity, social equality or changes who we are, should if they are consistent also denounce on-line cognition enhancement such as
Google, Wikipedia or decision support systems. Their critique is general and medium independent to a large degree, yet they focus on a particular medium (drugs) few feel they want to defend. But the importance of enhancers and recreational drugs lie entirely in their effects and not how they come about. Eating food rich in choline during pregnancy in order to give the child the best memory possible is biologically and morally equivalent to changing its gene expression pattern, yet the naturalness of food overcomes people’s qualms of genetic enhancement. If computer games were as addictive as critics claim, then they ought to be treated as addictive drugs, at least from a moral standpoint.

If there was an easy way of getting high or drunk using digital media, what would be the problem? Hedonism is not wrong in itself, and neither are altered states of mind. The reduction of responsibility
during use would clearly be an issue. Morally and practically society would have a reason to reign in the effects, making people responsible for using the drugs responsibly. The most serious problem would be if
the drug caused reinforcing effects, biasing behaviour towards repeated use at the expense of other life projects. This might be a good reason to limit access to the drug or mandate that use must be done under controlled circumstances.

Digital drugs, if they ever become feasible, will be very hard to outlaw since they are following the logic of the digital world: they can be copied endlessly for no extra cost. The only way of preventing them would be constant monitoring of everybody’s computers or limiting their capabilities severely, something it is doubtful it would be worthwhile to do. What can be done is to deliberately create a digital drug culture: laws, manufacturing standards, social norms and ways of thinking about addiction, responsibility and altered states of mind that allow society to limit the negative effects while enjoying the positive effects.

But for the time being, the only effect we should expect is the placebo effect.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. Hi Anders,
    Fascinating article, great information… but I don’t completely agree with you. I think comparing binaural beats to chemical drugs is a bit simplistic. Though they may help to experience altered states of mind you can also reach altered mind states through yoga, meditation, etc… just perhaps not as easily.
    There are numerous studies on how sound can affect our state of being so why not tones and pulses… they are all simply frequencies presented to the brain. If the brain is able to experience these frequencies through the help of brainwave entrainment products then it makes sense that people are going to want to experiment with them because the possible benefits are too hard to pass up.
    I do agree that they need to be used responsibly, for example not while using machinery or driving a car, but I don’t see how that could be regulated.
    I have used binaural beats often and write about it on my blog:
    Speaking merely from my own experiences I do not agree that what I have felt and experienced could be a placebo effect, but I suppose if I feel good, what does it matter.
    Cheers, Allison

  2. I don’t think we disagree, except perhaps in how much we believe binaural beats can influence our minds. I think regulation, responsible use and the ethics of using anything mind-influencing should be independent of whether that is a drug, food, sounds or a mystical ritual. At least as long as the nature of the vehicle does not impose any particular concern (e.g. some methods might be safely self-limiting, others might carry particular costs or side-effects).

  3. Hi Anders,

    I agree the idea that brainwave entrainment (bb)cannot be compared chemical drugs.

    I tried many years BB and when I stop using them coz travelling or other activities I do not feel any abstinence syndrome or side effects.

    In addition, Brainwave entrainment sessions does not work with everyone, some people is insensible to those sounds.

    Finally, you can test your sesnibility to brainwave sessions for free here:

    Greetings and googd luck

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