Experts debate 'binaural beats' as possible stimulant

Some officials in the United Arab Emirates are worried about the effects of “binaural beats” in digital audio tracks, which they say can simulate some of the effects of psychoactive drugs in listeners.

During the recent Sixth International Conference of Sport Versus Crime, held at Duba Police general headquarters under the authority of Dubai Crown Prince Shaikh Hamdan Bin Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, experts from 35 countries exchanged analyses and information about issues related to recreation, crime and community life.

One issue that was front and center was the use of digital soundtracks that include “binaural beats” or “binaural tones.” Some people contend that listeners can use these audio tracks to attain "altered states of consciousness" similar to the effects of some narcotic or psychedelic substances.

Algerian lawyer Nasima Amal Hifri noted the availability of these audio tracks on the Internet and suggested passing a pre-emptive law to criminalize them. But at the same time, he offered his thoughts on the impracticality of trying to criminalize such tracks.

“There is currently no legislation anywhere because the debate is that how can listening to criminal notes be criminalized, and how will those listening to them be tracked,” Hifri said.

Jasem Khalil Mirza, Dubai Police security director colonel, said the issue of digital stimulants in audio tracks is not a problem on the same level with “actual drugs,” such ecstasy, narcotics and certain opioids.

“I don’t think there is a need to fight something that doesn’t exist," he said. "There is no proof it’s a substitute to other drugs and that the vibrations lead to an addiction.” 

Mirza said he listened to some 'binaural beats' and did not feel any psychological effect.

For more on the issue, the Gulf News Journal spoke with Norm Scott, a sound designer and video editor based in Ithaca, New York.

“In my opinion, the supposed ‘scourge’ of ‘binaural drugs’ is largely an alarmist myth, in the same vein as ‘reefer madness’ or the back-masking scare in the 80s, when playing records backward was supposedly turning kids into devil worshippers,” Scott said. “The idea that they mimic the same effect of conventional drugs and cause addiction is nonsense."

Scott explained binaural beats as two slightly different tones played in each ear, which leads to the listener perceiving a third tone that vibrates at a different frequency.

“This phantom tone is not actually, sonically ‘there,’” Scott said. “It’s being created psycho-acoustically inside your brain.”

The process, he said, works on the principle of “resonant entrainment.”

“These frequencies will basically coerce your brainwaves into synchronization, creating a state of relaxation,” Scott said, citing a similar physical synchronization of multiple pendulums mounted to a common surface.

“It is in fact the auditory equivalent of William Burrough’s ‘Dream Machine,’ which uses rapidly flashing lights to produce the same effect,” he said. “Incidentally, it’s fairly well known that flashing lights can be dangerous to those with epilepsy … it’s my understanding that binaural beats carry similar risks.”

Scott said many of those who tout the psychedelic powers of binaural audio are probably falling victim to the power of suggestion or wishful thinking.

“Can binaural beats cause your brain waves to change to a relaxed state?” Scott said. “Sure. Will they get you stoned? Rubbish. If the effects produced by using binaural beats are considered ‘getting high,' then we should also be criminalizing meditation and strenuous exercise. I feel like these efforts to criminalize ‘binaural drugs’ are being led by the same kind of people who stage book burnings.”