Researcher Dispels Notion Music Can Get Kids High

Websites promoting so-called digital drugs are causing some parents to worry their kids may be getting high just by listening to music. The sites offer sound files that claim to reproduce the effects of marijuana and cocaine. But a researcher from Oregon Health and Science University, Helane Wahbeh, says studies haven't shown that sound can dramatically alter brainwaves the way chemical drugs can do.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

As if parents of teenagers don't have enough to worry about, add this to the list: fear that their kids are getting high just listening to music. Some websites are offering so-called I-doses of digital drugs, music tracks and applications that promise to deliver the experience of taking marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy, even Viagra.

And on sites such YouTube, countless videos promise to put you in a drug-like trance.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Naturally, all this has some parents, school districts and even law enforcement officials worried, though most experts are skeptical.

Helane Wahbeh is an assistant professor at Oregon Health and Science University. She's done several studies into the technology behind the so-called digital drugs. And she joins us now from Portland, Oregon.

Welcome to the program.

Dr. HELANE WAHBEH (Naturopathic Physician and Clinician Researcher, Oregon Health and Science University): Thank you.

NORRIS: Dr. Wahbeh, all of this is based on something called binaural beats, which can supposedly alter brain waves. What exactly are these, and how do they work?

Dr. WAHBEH: Binaural beats happen when opposite ears receive two different sound waves. And normally, the difference in sound between each ear help people get directional information about the source of the sound. But when you listen to these sounds with stereo headphones, the listener senses the difference between the two frequencies as another beat that sounds like it's coming from the inside of the head.

So, for example, if the right ear hears a tone at 400 hertz and the left ear hears a tone at 410 hertz, the beat that they hear in their head is at 10 hertz.

NORRIS: And does that possibly create some sort of altered state?

Dr. WAHBEH: That's the theory that binaural beats are supposed to affect health and consciousness through something called entrainment of brain waves. So entrainment means that the brain wave activity starts matching the wave activity it is sensing. So if a person is listening to binaural beats at 10 hertz, they're supposed to have an increase in brain wave activity at 10 hertz.

NORRIS: Now, based on your research, is it possible that listening to these tracks might lead someone to experience something tantamount to the effects of taking cocaine or ecstasy or even Viagra?

Dr. WAHBEH: We did a small controlled study with four people, and we did not see any brain wave activity shifting to match the binaural beat that people were listening to.

NORRIS: So if we decided to play some of these binaural beats right now, other than freaking out our listeners who turn to us for news and information and perhaps a little bit of enlightenment, would we cause people to drive off the road or enter into some other kind of spooky altered state?

Dr. WAHBEH: Not at all. I mean, first of all, you have to listen to it with stereo headphones; and second, I just don't think that there is enough evidence showing that it really does create those altered states.

NORRIS: So for parents who have lots to worry about when it comes to raising teenagers, I guess we might be able to take this one off the list?

Dr. WAHBEH: I would think so.

NORRIS: Dr. Helane Wahbeh, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Dr. WAHBEH: You're very welcome.

NORRIS: Helane Wahbeh is an assistant professor at Oregon Health and Science University. She's currently studying the use of meditation to treat combat veterans suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder.

(Soundbite of music)

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