Audio files of binaural beats are being used as digital psychedelic drugs - study

A young woman wearing headphones
"Much like ingestible substances, some binaural beats users were chasing a high." Photo credit: Getty Images

A new study has shown that people are using audio files to try and mimic the effects of psychedelic drugs.

Binaural beats are a sound created by the brain when it's exposed to different tones in each ear that differ in frequency. That third tone, at the frequency difference between the other two, is known as the binaural beat.

The study, published in Drug and Alcohol Review, reviewed data from the Global Drug Survey 2021 which used responses from 30,000 people in 22 countries.

While most respondents said they used binaural beats to relax or fall asleep (72 percent) and change their mood (35 percent), 12 percent said they used them to get the same effects as psychedelic drugs. 

"Much like ingestible substances, some binaural beats users were chasing a high," the study's lead author, Dr Monica Barratt of RMIT University in Melbourne, said.

"But that's far from their only use. Many people saw them as a source of help, such as for sleep therapy or pain relief."

The psychedelic motivation was more commonly reported from those who had used actual psychedelic drugs, she said.

According to the study, audio tracks on the likes of Spotify, YouTube and Vimeo were often named after their intended use.

That covered everything from sleep, mindfulness and meditation, to tracks named MDMA (the active ingredient in the drug ecstasy) and cannabis.

While binaural tone tracks have been widely accessible for some time, Barratt said, their popularity had grown recently.

"We just don't know much about the use of binaural beats as digital drugs," she said.

"We had anecdotal information, but this was the first time we formally asked people how, why and when they're using them."

Barratt also said that binaural beats being used in this way could impact on what the definition of a drug could be.

"We're starting to see digital experiences defined as drugs," she said.

"Maybe a drug doesn't have to be a substance you consume, it could be to do with how an activity affects your brain."

While there wasn't any suggestion in the survey that binaural beats were a gateway into taking actual substances, there was an explanation for that.

"In the survey, we found most people who listen were already using ingestible substances," Barratt said.

"But that doesn't discount the need for more research, particularly to document and negate possible harms."