Forget Olympic doping with pills and syringes, the future of performance enhancement might just lie in sound—that is, if you put any stock into the work of Peak Performance Center researcher Dr. Rayma Ditson-Sommer. At it since 1996, Ditson-Sommer works with Olympic athletes to find and maintain “the zone” through the use of a new-agey technology known as binaural beats. In geek speak, the good doctor is attempting to develop the “relaxation response” in athletes during times of heightened stress, like during, say, an Olympic competition after a long flight. Using downloadable audio files in combination with corresponding colored eyeglasses, athletes are reportedly able to alter their mental state to one of focused, unwavering relaxation in the face of apparently insurmountable odds. Sounds a little suspect, but athletes put through the program have brought home more than 40 medals since Ditson-Sommer started her research.
Essentially a trick of the brain, binaural beats occur when two tones of differing frequencies are played individually through a subject’s ears. Your brain generates the resulting “beat,” or fluctuation in sound, by attempting to resolve the difference between the two slightly different tones. The thinking here is that by creating a beat of 30 to 14 hertz, the frequency of your brain waves will either raise or lower to that level, thereby giving you the advantages of functioning in that brain space (relaxation, focus, creativity, et al.). In that sense, it’s all in your head, but don’t tell binaural beat proponents that.
Ditson-Sommer’s work represents the more scientific side of this borderline mystical (and I don’t mean that in a good way) technology, and naturally there is a “off the deep end” side to that set. Beat zealots trumpet the audio’s ability to induce everything from orgasm to out of body experiences and everything in between—and I do mean everything. There are even digital counterparts to analog drugs like cocaine, alcohol, LSD and cannabis. All it takes to get high, it would seem, is a quick listen. But is it true?
In a word, no. Ever since Prussian scientist H.W. Dove observed binaural beats back in 1839, researchers have been at somewhat of a loss to explain what exactly the phenomenon could benefit. Scientists have used beats for sleep and hearing research to some success, but little has been done to determine the exact effects the tones have on our brains. Interestingly, however, there are several instances that point to binaural beats’ apparent ability to help alleviate anxiety in some test subjects, lending a fair amount of credence to Ditson-Sommer’s work. But possibly quelling some anxiety doesn’t necessarily translate to selling a noisy MP3 for $19.95—you’ve got to set the hook deeper than that.
The notion that beats could do anything mystical or psychedelic didn’t come about until Robert Monroe, a former advertising executive and founder of the Monroe Institute, invented the MKULTRA-appropriate Hemi-Sync in 1975. Short for hemispherical synchronization, the Hemi-Sync was purported to serve as a mental health machine with the ability to induce altered states of consciousness up to and including out of body experiences (Monroe himself was an enthusiast). From there, salesmen ran with Monroe’s claims and extrapolated—at the expense of teenagers and rubes everywhere—that if people would believe that a sound could make you leave your body, they’d probably believe a sound could get you stoned (or at least significantly alter your consciousness). These are the DigitalDrugs, I-Dosers and Squareeaters of the world we see today.
Google search results pull up scores of people calling binaural beat highs a scam, and my own personal research aligns with those reviews. In the past, I’ve tried a variety of “digital drugs” out of curiosity and I even re-tried them for the purposes of this post. My results are now, as then, the same: nothing close to high, just more relieved when the “dose” was over with. The most notable physical response I had to any of these treatments was a slight headache from having pink noise blasted directly into my dome for 20 minutes at a shot. This observation makes past parental fear of “digital drugs” even more laughable, especially given the worry that binaural beats with a narcotic twist could serve as gateway drugs to the real thing. They’re no more than a gateway to ibuprofen.
Ditson-Sommer’s Olympic trials, though, are markedly different from this particular brand of snake oil. What she’s doing essentially amounts to guided meditation with a bit of sensory deprivation thrown in for good measure. These digital drug salesmen rely almost entirely on the power of suggestion and the placebo effect coupled with the customer’s up-front desire to get high, and that is undoubtedly a powerful mental force—especially combined with binaural beats signature spooky vibe. That there is even a debate that binaural drugs work at all should be evidence that they don’t—real drugs, after all, work pretty much every time.
But I have to admit, the notion that binaural beats are another method for consciousness expansion even exists is telling about the human bent for mind-altering activities and substances. Even in an age of God particles, space travel and endless information on tap, we as a species still use our abundance of technology to find more ways to get away from our daily average perception.