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Hit Play on the Maximum Chill, Mind-Enhancing Sonic Drugs That Could Change Your Life

Binaural beats promise happiness, spiritual peace, even DNA repair and hypnosis—all through the power of sound. What do they really deliver?

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Jul 16 2018, 9:40pm
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“Chillin’ on a Dirt Road,” “Hanging Out and Relaxing,” “Poolside in Your Mind”: These are the titles of a few of the most popular “Chill” playlists on Spotify. Imagine a hypothetical situation: you viscerally crave a very specific mood—one that is Chill—but don’t feel satisfied with any of these on-demand selections. “Boho + Chill” and “License to Chill” don’t seem to hit the spot either, and suddenly, you’ve lost the intuitive sense of what you need in order to feel alright. Life sucks, and all you wanted was to Chill for half an hour. Is that so much to ask?

Likely informed by their extensive analysis of user listening behavior, streaming services have decided that part of what makes music great is its utilitarian value. At their core, these playlists are designed to produce emotions—euphoria, nostalgia, confidence—that help people become who they want to be, utilizing the power of music to overcome pain points in their lives.

On YouTube, channels specializing in a video style called binaural beats have one-upped this Chill sound methodology and freaked it. Binaural beats are a cryptic phenomenon. On the one hand, they’re a real acoustic occurrence: the term describes the sensation produced when a listener hears two different tones in each of their ears, and as a result, simultaneously hears a third, phantom tone—one that does not exist outside of their own mind. (The two original tones must be sine waves at neighboring frequencies in order for the effect to work.) But binaural beats are also widely used as a form of DIY self-medication. They accumulate millions of views as an popular wellness video genre on YouTube, and through dedicated apps like Binaural Beats Therapy and Binaural (β); their software gives users the option to choose different beats for a handful of desired effects, including relaxation, sleep, and alertness.

Binaural beat videos often implement their psychoacoustic effect within long, melodic drone compositions that generally resemble ambient video game soundtracks. The accompanying visuals typically suggest something along the lines of “mind expansion”: mandalas, the cosmos, galaxy brains. These sounds are designed to stimulate different frequency bands in the skull’s wetware, and are said to increase creativity, focus, and happiness, as well as a whole spate of other outcomes. Some of the more far-out ones advertise hypnosis, mind programming, and superintelligence, not to mention third eye activation and DNA repair; “Cum in Less Than 3 Minutes, Hands Free Binaural Beats & Isochronic Tones” has racked up over four million views since being posted in November.

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For many, binaural beats are the current apotheosis of sound as a mood-enhancement technology. In addition to using them as a form of sensory medication, users also listen to binaural beats to enhance their productivity and push through stress and exhaustion. These recordings end up having less in common with “All You Need Is Love” than the recent pair of mysterious sonic attacks in Cuba and China, which led to symptoms similar to those from brain injuries.

Matt Watson, who is behind the Magnetic Minds YouTube channel—which has nearly 145,000 subscribers—told me over Skype that he thinks binaural beats work in similar ways to nootropics: edible neuroenhancers somewhat similar to amphetamine salts and Modafinil, but customizable and much more aligned with tech entrepreneurism than the pharmaceutical industry. “Combining binaurals with nootropics is one of the experiments that I’ve actually done on myself, and needless to say they enhance each other to a level that the individual cannot obtain on their own,” he said. Describing the outcomes he personally desires from binaural beats, Watson said that he seeks “[increased] performance, peace of mind, and a natural way to escape the mundane minutiae of society in today’s world. It’s basically unlocking a part of the mind that, from nine to five, may previously remain locked.”

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Binaural beats were not always seen as wellness or self-optimization tools: around ten years ago, masses of teens were convinced they could get high off of the audio recordings. It was said that binaural beats could induce feelings comparable to drugs like pot and cocaine. The phenomenon was colloquially called iDosing—named after the popular binaural beats software sold by I-Doser.com—and it caused widespread moral panic among concerned parents. “Web Delivers New Worry for Parents: Digital Drugs,” read the headline of a 2008 ABC News editorial about the odd craze. In July 2010, NPR enlisted a researcher from Oregon Health and Science University, Helane Wahbeh, to dispel this notion.

A binaural beats enthusiast I connected with through Reddit, Marnix Vinkenborg, told me that he got into the style after studying the psychoacoustic compositions of artists Alvin Lucier and Curtis Roads. “I have the problem that my thoughts can get very clouded, which results in stress and fatigue,” he said. “The binaural beat music has such simplicity; it’s like entering a tidy quiet park instead of a large festival terrain.” Vinkenborg thinks binaural beats are more of a homeopathic phenomenon than an artistic one: “The goals of the current binaural beat music [are] very clear: to relieve anxiety, for example.”

According to James Lane, Professor Emeritus in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University, the existing scientific research on binaural beats is far from comprehensive. Scientists know that binaural beats induce an altered state in the listener, but it’s not clear exactly how that works, or what it does. “There are very few studies that actually show that binaural beats have beneficial effects, but that doesn’t mean they don’t,” he told me in a phone interview. “It’s more that the questions have not been addressed rather than the answers are negative.”

“Perhaps the results were chance, or placebo, but my illness disappeared rapidly. ‘Let food be thy medicine,’ as Hippocrates said, and I did, but I also found binaural beats.”

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Lane published a study on binaural beats in 1998, finding that a specific set of frequencies can keep people alert. Clinical studies have also shown that the sounds may be helpful in reducing preoperative anxiety, and that patients undergoing surgery under general anesthesia required less anesthetic while listening to binaural beats. An overview of scientific research produced by researchers at the University of Bonn notes that while studies on auditory beat stimulation have generally yielded solitary or contradictory findings, several of them have consistently reported decreased levels of anxiety.

When considering the value of binaural beats, however, listener testimonies should be taken into account. “It does seem that people get relief from binaural beats,” said Lane. “People’s stories and testimonials suggest that this is a really valuable product that can have a lot of beneficial effects. And yet, from a medical, scientific, and psychological perspective, it’s totally ignored. It’s not like a drug that you can patent and market. It’s a freer technology, so there’s not as much money invested in it.”

Giorgio Regni, who has been working with binaural beats for 25 years, says that he regularly receives enthusiastic feedback from the people that use his Binaural Beats Therapy app. Parents, students, and even late-stage cancer patients regularly reach out to thank him, he explained, because they have found binaural beats useful; he said that hospitals use the app as well to help patients manage pain. “Binaural beats work,” he said. “They can only help you if they want to be helped. They cannot fix underlying physical, chemical, or imbalance issues. But if you take that into account, it’s a pretty amazing piece of technology that is not invasive, does not cost anything, and you can do it any time.”

When it comes to this strange, viral audio phenomenon, it is perhaps less interesting to interrogate how binaural beats work than to consider that they seem to work—in one sense or another—for a huge swathe of listeners. These sound works seem to offer the audience an increasingly rare and invaluable sense of peace of mind, of perceived health. “Several years ago I had taken ill and had no healthcare, so I looked into home remedies and stumbled across binaural beats,” said the person behind the Mind Meditation YouTube channel. “Perhaps the results were chance, or placebo, but my illness disappeared rapidly. ‘Let food be thy medicine,’ as Hippocrates said, and I did, but I also found binaural beats.”

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Indeed, thinking of listeners in the United States, it’s hard not to see these videos as a symptom of the current healthcare crisis; it is possible that the popularity of binaural beats speaks less to their transformative powers than to the pain endured by their listeners. Millions of people are incentivized to look outside of the healthcare industry in order to find the cheapest remedies for chronic pain (of whatever kind) due to policies that distinguish the poor from the rich in determining who deserves healthcare. It doesn’t cost anything to sit in front of a video, nursing your wounds at home.

Binaural beats might be a collective sonic fiction, but their effects seem to be strangely real. I can imagine user software designers at big-budget streaming platforms getting a little envious of the niche binaural beats have carved out. Instead of a playlist featuring a bunch of songs, there is just one long recording, making the listening experience frictionless. Instead of offering a sound experience designed to evoke particular moods through references such as summer, self-care, or the beach, binaural beats cut to the chase and advertise sonic effects as directly as possible, without all the bells and whistles. Serenity, concentration, relaxation, full stop. Optimized chill.

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