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Getting high from sound? It's all in your head

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Bill Briggs writes: Turn on, tune in … download?

The teen fad known as i-Dosing – an allegedly trippy state of ecstasy reached, some claim, by listening through earphones to a pair of carefully mixed audio streams – has led some parents to worry, some teachers to panic and some narcotics authorities to start monitoring the so-called “digital drug.”

Unfamiliar with the notion of getting high via audio file? Websites boast that when repetitive beats are synchronized with brainwaves, it can alter the listener's mood or simulate the feeling of being high.

But one brain expert offers a decidedly blunt, low-tech take on this i-Trend: “It’s really much B.S., honestly,” said Damir Janigro, a Cleveland Clinic neurosurgery researcher. While music has the power to change moods, the medical concept behind i-Dosing is little more than a money-making scheme – just a dose of cyber-snake oil, Janigro adds.

To get the effect, users plug into “i-Dosers” through their headphones. The MP3 downloads (often accompanied by kaleidoscopic videos) send a distinct tone into one ear while simultaneously filling the other ear with staticky, white noise or an electrical hum, allegedly changing brain waves and bathing listeners in euphoric bliss. At least one track mixed in what sounded like a woman having an orgasm.

YouTube contains a number of free i-Dose “sound drugs,” including “Leviticus Green” or “Gates of Hades” which instructs people to listen alone in a dark room to maximize the “hallucinogenic effects.” Several websites sell i-Dose downloads for everything from smoking cessation to anxiety relief. They can cost about $20 for a 55-minute audio sample.

The grown-up hysteria over i-Dosing started with some YouTube videos that show users looking freaked out as they listen to the trippy tracks. Because i-Dosing fans – usually teenagers – claim they reach altered states through these sound streams, scattered packs of authorities have wagged their fingers at the practice. In March, three students at an Oklahoma high school were ordered to the principal’s office for admittedly i-Dosing. Consequently, the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics said it was “concerned” about the fad because some i-Dosing websites offer links to buy prescription drugs or marijuana.

The late Timothy Leary would have undoubtedly loved the hoopla. But Janigro, a music aficionado who collaborated on the Cleveland Clinic’s study of deep brain stimulation, says i-Dosing is a medical dud. Any effects shown by users, he believes, are either triggered by the accompanying use of marijuana or simply by the power of suggestion.

“I really don’t think there is any danger in this,” Janigro says. “People are trying to make money ... simply using the same music that we’ve always had.”

Indeed, music can affect disposition: that’s why music is played at funerals, Janigro says. That’s why exercisers often tune into songs while working out. But the impact varies with each person. For some, “Beethoven makes them cry, for others Beethoven makes them bored.”

What’s more, sending one tone and beat into one ear, and another tone and beat into the opposite ear is as old as Beethoven – and symphony attendees don’t walk out stoned or craving munchies.

“Your awareness of music is bilateral: you hear music with both sides of your brain,” Janigro says. “At every orchestra, the strings on the left may be playing in three-quarter (time) and the cellos on the right in two quarter. So that’s nothing new.”

What i-Dosing fans ignore is “that [what comes through the right and left] ear canals are both crossing in the brain,” says Janigro. It’s not that the sound that goes into right ear goes to right side of your brain, or the left ear goes to the left side. “They cross so that in the left brain you hear from both ears and in the right brain you hear from both ears.”

Getting high digitally? “I don’t think there is a future in it,” he says.

Then, knowing kids, fads and scams of all types, the researcher quickly corrects himself.

“I don’t think there is any honest future in it.”

What do you think about i-Dosing? Is it a real danger -- or simply B.S., as Janigro puts it? Tell us in the comments.

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