Audio Files Being Consumed as ‘Digital Drugs’: Study

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A study on the Global Drug Survey 2021 has raised questions on the phenomenon of binaural beats in audio files being consumed as “digital drugs” capable of “eliciting mental and emotional responses” akin to psychoactive drugs.

“We’re starting to see digital experiences defined as drugs, but they could also be seen as complementary practices alongside drug use,” said Dr. Monica Barratt from RMIT, the lead author for the study.

Binaural beats occur when an individual is exposed to two similar tones of slightly different frequencies at each of their ears, the brain then creates an illusioned third tone in response.

The beat has been claimed to allow users to embody the “experience of psychoactive drugs or to elicit specific cognitive or emotional states,” especially giving users a therapeutic experience, mainly in terms of reduced anxiety or sleep induction.

The team surveyed 30,896 participants from 22 countries, speaking 11 languages, including Australia, U.S., Brazil and many others.

Participants were asked if they had listened to binaural beats in the past 12 months to experience altered states. Those that indicated usage were then surveyed on the details of their use, such as the frequency, hours per day, the reason for use and the platforms and devices used to access.

Overall, 5.3 percent of respondents reported using binaural beats to experience altered states in the past 12 months. The majority listened “to relax or fall asleep,” taking up 72.2 percent of responses, and 34.7 percent wanted to change their mood.

An 11.7 percent reported listening “to get a similar effect to that of other drugs,” and this group was also commonly linked with psychedelic drug consumption behaviours.

Further, a small remainder listened to binaural beats for concentration, meditation, to ease headaches or pain, to facilitate lucid dreaming, astral projection and other “out of body” experiences, and to enhance the effects of the psychedelic drugs.

The team found, on average, those that listened to binaural beats would have done so at least 10 times over a 12 months period, and 68.3 percent accessed the beats through video streaming platforms such as YouTube, with 34.4 percent accessing the audio through audio streaming platforms such as Spotify.

Barratt said that the phenomenon of binaural beat listening challenges the traditional definition of a drug as “a substance you consume.”

“It could be to do with how an activity affects your brain,” she said.

However, the authors noted that research around binaural beat listening has been very scant on its impact.

Though some studies have found binaural beats to have positive effects on pain alleviation, anxiety reduction and memory, “there have been conflicting findings around its effects on concentration.”

The study found binaural beat listening to be most prevalent in younger aged groups and drug takers–with 7.6 percent of respondents aged 16 to 20 listening to binaural beats.

However, Barratt does not believe that this is indicative that binaural beat listening is a gateway to ingesting other drugs.

“In the survey, we found most people who listen were already using ingestible substances,” she said but indicated there is a need for more research “to document and negate possible harms.”

“Evidence is mounting, but it’s still unclear, which is why more research is needed into any possible side effects,” she said.

“The mere existence of this phenomenon challenges broadly held assumptions about what drugs actually are. It has led us to ask whether mediated digital experiences could also be considered ‘drugs’, or whether they are better placed as complementary practices alongside drug use,” the authors concluded.

Marina Zhang


Marina Zhang is based in Melbourne and focuses on Australian news. Contact her at

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