It might seem like the stuff of science fiction. As a matter of fact, ‘digital drugs’ made an appearance in the recent video game Watchdogs, essentially acting as a narrative justification for a series of bizarre mini-games. The thing is though, electronically delivered, mind-altering agents are very real and readily available.
Thanks to a website called ‘i-Doser’ and a few other similar ones, a whole host of digital counterparts to drugs are within easy reach, be they recreational, pharmaceutical, fictional or abstract. How does this work? Through binaural beats. Binaural beats are essentially tones played at differing frequencies simultaneously. They stimulate a specific part of the brain stem in such away that they can induce relaxation, focus and a range of other responses, many of them associated with drugs.
It’s far from new. The effects were discovered as early as the 19th century and experimentation has been widespread since then. Binaural beats have been used therapeutically, too — even in memory replacement (though the results have been somewhat mixed). There’s still a great deal of skepticism, with many test subjects unable to determine whether what they were feeling was from the sound or a placebo effect.
i-Doser is the first site to implement them as a legal, virtual replacement for recreational drug use (or practical drug use). If there’s a great deal of skepticism in wider circles, then there’s a fleet of dump truck’s worth surrounding i-Doser. There is very little scientific research and external focus-group testing has not turned up much. Perhaps more notably, the site seems almost devoid of negative reviews, suggesting that they might not be getting past moderation.
The concept of getting high from soundwaves was still enough to arouse my interest. I’m no stranger to the idea of sound having a potent, pronounced effect on brainwaves. White noise, for instance, is used as a form of torture. On an emotional level, it happens all the time. It’s hard to listen to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings without descending into a monsoon of tears, or The Jackson 5’s I Want You Back without rocking around in your chair. It can extend even further than that. Listen to this:
That haunting piece of vocaloid devilry is taken from the score of anime film Perfect Blue. It is one of the only pieces of music I’ve ever heard that induced a pronounced feeling of fear. Given that fear derives from feeling threatened or in danger, it’s much harder to achieve via music than something that engages more than one sense, like games or films.
A few years ago my brother used “Virtual Mima” for an experiment. He gathered a group of drama students in the theatre room at his school, shut off all the lights, and played the soundtrack of Perfect Blue. The results were fairly interesting until he reached “Virtual Mima.” One girl had a full-on panic attack. A panic attack is essentially a heady rush of adrenaline, brought on because the person’s brain has mistakenly decided that they are in danger. The fact that a three-minute piece of music brought one on really testifies to the power of sound.
If a simple piece of music, never mind one intended to have a visual counterpart, can have effects as pronounced as that, imagine what binaural sound might be capable of. With that in mind, I decided to make a guinea pig of myself. I downloaded the i-Doser program, got six doses and started experimenting. Here are the results.
Dose 1: “Content”
When you download the i-Doser program you are given three free doses just to get the ball rolling: Content, Sleeping Angel and Alcohol. Before venturing into murkier territory I thought it would be best to road test these, just to make sure I had an understanding of the process. The day I tried this one I was really flustered, had a lot on my plate, hadn’t been sleeping, my neck was playing up, and I’d hardly had a minute to myself. I needed some contentment. I was really hoping that this would be an effective means of achieving it.
The Dose: This one was the shortest of all the i-Doses I tried, clocking in at twenty minutes. You have to listen to these through headphones and are advised to avoid any distraction, so I switched the lights off, sat down and shut my eyes. The tones were deeply relaxing, almost like a digital whale song, while static sounds that ran beneath sounded almost like breaking waves. As the dose progressed, it almost sounded like heavy machinery being operated somewhere in the far distance. I felt very calm throughout and although the sounds rarely changed or progressed beyond the odd subtle upturn or downturn, I was never bored. I was also perfectly happy to sit still from start to finish, which is a big deal for me — I’m usually a notorious fidget.
The Effect: For about ten minutes after the dose ended I just stayed sat in the dark. I knew I had things to be getting on with but I didn’t feel even remotely hurried. I was happy with my surroundings. Even after I did eventually get up, the feeling stayed with me for nearly an hour afterwards. I found that all the negative thoughts that had been preying on my mind during the day weren’t having such a pronounced effect on me — there was a barrier between me and them. I can hear you shouting ‘placebo’, but I think my skepticism going in kind of negates that. Besides, I’ve had far more intense emotional responses to sound than mere contentment in the past. At any rate, I liked this one. It did the trick, which buoyed me with confidence for the rest of the trial run.
Dose 2: Sleeping Angel
This one purported to help you sleep better. Like Content, the effect is not necessarily difficult to achieve, depending on how hard a time the person is having sleeping anyway. I’m no insomniac (at least not anymore, thankfully), but at the time I was struggling to get a decent night’s sleep, mostly owing to my neck problem. There are plenty of meditative techniques, herbal remedies and mental exercises out there to help you sleep better, so it seems more than likely that having your brainwaves massaged by sound could be effective.
The Dose: Weirdly, the tones in this one didn’t relax me at all, at least initially. They were ethereal and unsettling. Melodically, it moved around even less than Content, despite being five minutes longer. It was, altogether, a less relaxing, less enjoyable listening experience. But again, I was never bored or in a hurry for it to finish.
The Effect: This one is perhaps the murkiest of all. I definitely felt myself becoming more tired and fatigued as the dose continued, and afterwards I was sound asleep inside of ten minutes. The question is, did the dose have anything to do with it, or was it just the cumulative effect of three virtually sleepless nights? I still don’t know — I haven’t tried the dose again since, but I don’t have a hard time believing it could have played a role. Just not a particularly distinct one.
Dose 3: Alcohol
Feeling content or getting a good night’s sleep is one thing, but intoxication is quite another. Had it not been part of the free pack I probably wouldn’t have opted for this one. I’m at a stage in my life where I can regulate my alcohol intake pretty well on a night out, but it’s taken a long time and a lot of lamb donners to reach that stage. I still enjoy getting drunk, within reason, but if I was to cherry pick a mind-altering substance ahead of an evening, alcohol wouldn’t rank highly. Uppers enhance, weed eases, hallucinogens add, but alcohol subtracts, for better or worse. That aside, I was fairly sure this one wasn’t going to work, and if it did, there was no specification about whether I’d feel tipsy or full-on blotto. Since this is a learning process, I threw caution to the wind, sat myself down and prepared to get white-girl wasted through my earholes.
The Dose: Clocking in at thirty-five minutes, this was the longest of all of the doses I tried. The tones were much more melodious than the other two, and they moved around a lot more. I was able to pick out little undertones and sounds that almost replicated strings or brass. I also like the way the tonal hums and the static interplayed, fading in and out of each other. A common theme amongst all of these is that they could always hold my attention for the full runtime.
The Effect: I noticed myself feeling vaguely dizzy and even mildly euphoric while I was listening to the dose. Things only got more interesting afterwards. The dizziness carried on, but I also felt an onset of energy and something akin to confidence. It was a strange feeling, very difficult to pin down and laced with a certain aura of the artificial. It was drunk, Jim, but not as we know it. I didn’t consume any alcohol before or after to be certain there was no outside influence. The feeling stayed with me for a good hour after I took the dose. It was never more than mild, but it was definitely something. This is when I started to recognize what binaural sound is capable of, before moving into deeper waters.
Dose 4: Acid
When I browsed the i-Doser library, there were a great deal of hallucinogenic dead-ringers on offer. It seemed more pertinent to try out one of these, rather than a digital “upper” or “marijuana”. There were plenty of other hallucinogenic options, from DMT to salvia to psilocybin, but I opted for acid for a number of reasons. First, it’s the one I’m the most familiar with, so I had a good frame of reference. Second, I’m of the opinion that dropping acid is just about the cheapest holiday you can take. It doesn’t necessarily matter where you are or whom you’re with, so long as you’re in a good place emotionally and the product is of a high standard, you’ll find beauty in it. I wanted to see just how close you could get to that amazing, transformative feeling through sound. I wasn’t expecting anything anywhere near as intense, or prolonged, given acid’s 16+ hour turnaround time, but I was hoping for an echo of it, a shade.
The Dose: This one was nice, the tones vibrated and pulsed and the intensity built up and drew back at intervals. At times they became harsher and less melodic, but not in an ugly way. It seemed fitting. Towards the end of the dose things got really intense, and a sharp, loud crackling sound popped in before giving way to a last, soft hum to play the whole thing out. It was easily the most interesting dose from a purely auditory perspective.
The Effect: Not surprisingly, it wasn’t even remotely like being on acid. I wasn’t expecting any actual hallucination — closed eye or open eye — and I didn’t get any, but that’s not to say that the dose didn’t do anything. The common misconception with trips is that they make you see things that aren’t there, or have crazy out-of-body experiences. While that is sometimes true, it’s more about enabling you to process thought in ways you wouldn’t otherwise be able to. There’s a cold logic to being on acid. Your thoughts feel weightless and sharper. After doing this I felt stimulated, curious and mildly elevated. I found it easier to focus on things, but I also find somewhat out of sorts, like whatever I was doing, I could have been doing something more important. It was a very clement sensation and I normalized after about half an hour.
Dose 5: Milk Plus
This was the unexpected twist in the i-Doser library: a fictional drug. Of all the sections I looked through, this one fascinated me the most. Replications of pharmaceutical and recreational drugs are one thing, but to try and imagine how fictional ones might influence you? Sign me up. Other options included Andrenachrome (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, NZT (The Dark Fields/Limitless), Skooma (Skyrim) and Spice Melange (Dune). I chose the stimulating milky cocktail from A Clockwork Orange because it didn’t seem like such a leap that a dose would be capable of sharpening you up and making you ready for a bit of the old ultraviolence.
The Dose: I was half expecting some quintessential 70s synth or even the old Ludwig Van to fade in, and to feel the malenky little hairs on my plott standing endwise and the shivers crawling up like slow malenky lizards and then down again (sorry, I’ll stop now), but instead I got the same ghostly tonal range I’d first heard during the sleep dose. The static moved around and changed a lot more during this one. Normally I homed in on the humming more than the fizzing. This was perhaps the most absorbing dose, and I enjoyed watching the light bend behind my eyelids as I listened to it.
The Effect: The description on the site says the effects of Milk Plus are ‘intense’ and ‘unpredictable’. They’re certainly right about the first one; I felt it straight away and for almost two hours after. It came as an immediate and sizeable onset of energy. Initially I felt the need to get some work done, to occupy my thoughts, but before long I was so jittery I felt the need to go for a walk. The euphoria was almost impossible to play down. I felt happy, enthused and more than a little silly. It was almost like being on speed. I won’t argue that you couldn’t achieve the same effect on a purely emotional, natural high, but I knew that I wasn’t playing anything up, I was just enjoying the feeling until it finally started to wear down. Of all the doses I sampled, this is the one I would be most inclined to use again. Real horrorshow.
Dose 6: Astral Projection
I decided to steer entirely clear of the prescription drug counter, since it didn’t seem particularly interesting when compared to the ‘experience’ catalog. Once again the range was wide: alien abduction, ‘Gates of Hades’, clairvoyance, orgasm and many more. Astral projection took my fancy because again I had a rough idea of what that feels like from past experiences and because now, having ascertained from Milk Plus that the effects can indeed be very intense, I wanted to see how far it could take me. So, into the breach…
The Dose: This was really heavy. The tones were much deeper and darker than the others. They came in greater and greater waves as the dose progressed. At times it was overwhelming. It wasn’t difficult to forget yourself and become completely engrossed, which is the best mindset to be in during the meditative intake phase.
The Effect: Sadly this one had virtually no residual effect at all. All the significant influence came while I was actually listening to it. I remember losing my equilibrium and feeling almost weightless, like I was rising and falling. There was also a vague sense of thoughts manifesting physically, like if I imagined a waving line, I felt like I was swaying. I certainly didn’t have an out-of-body experience, but there was a dreamlike quality to the feeling and I did see things in my mind’s eye. But unlike those you see whilst tripping, I was fully in control of them — I could switch them on and off. They did seem to be in sync with my thought processing though, which is typical of tripping. I remember once lying in bed after a heavy shrooming session, letting my mind wander, but every time my thoughts became trivial or clouded the words ‘wishy-washy’ would flare across my eyelids and my thoughts would automatically redirect. This was a bit like that, but again nowhere near as potent and over almost as soon as the dose ended.
The obvious question is whether or not these are a suitable substitute for the real deal. The answer is: hell no, not even remotely. But should they be? If this little venture proved anything, it’s that they’re best used as a kind of meditative aid, depending on whether you want to feel quixotic, content, euphoric, focused, or whatever else. I didn’t try any of the ones intended to make you work harder or better at video games or whatever, but I’d imagine they can’t be too heavily leaned on for such things. I also imagine that the effectiveness entirely depends on the person. Labeling them after drugs just creates false expectations, like you could download the cocaine dose and use it to get wasted just as easily as with real Peruvian marching powder. No, I think really they’re best used as a pathway for mental exploration. I had an interesting time with them. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them, but if you’re open to the idea, perhaps look to the experience library or the fictional one — look for something you won’t find anywhere else, not a cheap thrill.