When you plug in your headphones and start jamming to your favorite sci-fi song, something far more dangerous is actually happening, according to Kim Komando of USA Today. She recently published an article warning thoughtful parents of the dangers of "digital drugs," asserting that music downloads on certain websites could have the same effects on the human brain as heroin or crack. Before you delete your entire iTunes library, however, it's probably best to get the facts on exactly what these "digital drugs" might be.Komando reports that the druglike effects that these songs create result from the phenomenon of binaural beats:
Some sites provide binaural beats that have innocuous effects. For example, some claim to help you develop extrasensory powers like telepathy and psychokinesis. Other sites offer therapeutic binaural beats. They help you relax or meditate. Some allegedly help you overcome addiction or anxiety. Others purport to help you lose weight or eliminate gray hair. However, most sites are more sinister. They sell audio files ("doses") that supposedly mimic the effects of alcohol and marijuana. But it doesn't end there. You'll find doses that purportedly mimic the effects of LSD, crack, heroin and other hard drugs. There are also doses of a sexual nature. I even found ones that supposedly simulate heaven and hell.
Unfortunately, her discoveries are about as legitimate as the Pons-Fleischmann cold fusion experiment. Binaural beats, in fact, cannot do any of that. Aspiring telekinetics: I'm sorry to burst your bubble.
The actual origin of binaural beats makes comforting sense. Think of a typical sound wave — a periodic sine wave with a certain amplitude, frequency, and phase. When you hear a pure tone, what you're hearing is a sound wave of a single frequency. When you hear two pure tones of the same frequency, played in phase, you will effectively be hearing that same sound wave with its single frequency — but twice as loud, or with twice the amplitude. If you hear two pure tones that each have a different frequency, things get a little crazier; you will end up also hearing beats, or pulses, at the difference frequency between the two tones. Binaural beats are the beats that result when each of your ears is hearing a pure tone of a slightly different frequency. This tends to happen sometimes when you're wearing headphones. There's a part of your brain that compares the input from each of your ears and processes them — this is the same part of your brain that makes it possible for you to detect where exactly an annoying car alarm is coming from, or to single out your friend's voice in a crowd. As sophisticated as this sounds, brains from human to cat to frog are hardwired to do this, and sound processing has no effect on any higher-level functions like emotion or reason. Binaural beats are the automatic, simple, mathematical result of the combination of these two different-frequency tones in your head. And they might sound a little funky, but they certainly won't be enough to have you climbing the walls or watching the colors on your carpet swim like fish. So, parents, never fear: If your kids want acid trips, they'll have to get 'em the old-fashioned way. Digital drug CD image from Geomagnetic.tv. Sine wave images from Planet of Tunes. Web delivers new worry for parents: Digital drugs [USA Today]