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Hey guys,

Sorry for the long title. I've been thinking a lot about these unconventional and slightly controversial uses of sound outside of a "sound design" context. I wonder if there's anything useful amidst all the pseudo-science to us as engineers and artists. Is anyone here an expert (or an "expert", or for that matter know anything on the topic) on either of these?

"Sound Healing" is a in vogue right now. The idea is basically, unless I'm misunderstanding it, that your body vibrates in a certain way, and by pummeling the body with pressure wave vibration you can encourage the body to vibrate differently, or you can resonate with different organs. Like a lot of contemporary pseudo-science, the feeling I get from speaking with practitioners is that it mates massive misunderstanding of string theory with eastern philosophy.

But I can't help but wonder is there a grain of worthwhile truth in this that's worth pursuing as a sound designer?

The scarily named "Digital Drugs" are less pseudoscience and more misnomer. The idea, and it works to a degree, is that either:

1) You pair sound patterns or drones with flashing lights to produce a mild visual hallucination. This works, but it's nothing new. OR

2) You play certain sounds that are meant to reproduce the effects of certain drugs. I haven't tried this, but it looks to me like a scheme for the producer of these sounds to make a lot of money off of young people by compounding the established truth that sound-can-make-you-feel (that's what we do, right?) with the placebo effect and the halo of interest/controversy around recreational drugs.

But again, I wonder, is there something here we can exploit to make better art? Take away the "digital drugs" label (placebo effect + halo of interest), and does enough truth remain that we can use certain patterns of sound to produce a physiological effect? Or am I wrong about the falseness of the "digital drug" craze?

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I'll step forward and express simple skepticism. Binaural beats have been around forever. A specific thing with the concept is that it requires uninterrupted listening for a period of time, so your brain can synchronise its own waves with these "beats". Once your brain has locked on (by matter of sheer resonance I assume), you can supposedly take it through multiple states/levels of activity with the aim of reaching Delta waves which is basically a state of deep sleep.

In theory, and only if your brain is happy to release certain hormones at certain frequencies, you could possibly get high on this stuff. But I'd argue most of the time one might only feel refreshed and, to be cynical, maybe just because they've had 15 minutes of uninterrupted time and weren't supposed to do anything but relax and stand still..

So back to your original question, yes, this can be used, but if you found such a non-ADHD person to stand there listening to weirdness for 10 minutes, your time might be better spent in treating them to a far deeper story/statement than usual? (I write this in good faith and don't wish to sound negative.)

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The "beating" Austin is talking about is called "Binaural Beating", and the process of changing the brain's wavelengths with this is called "Brainwave Entrainment." Very cool process. You can actually do it with a couple of sine wave generators in Pro Tools and a pair of headphones. Basically what happens is you play one sine wave into one ear, and another into the other ear, both very close in frequency to one another, and your brain interprets (as in it's not actually physically there) a third frequency, which is the difference between the first two. So if I was listening to 100hz in my left ear and 106hz in my right ear, my brain would hear a sort of warbling at 4hz (even though the ear can't hear 6hz).

After an extended exposure to this sound (some people say in as little as 15-30 minutes), you brain eventually starts operating at that frequency. Kind of like when you're on a boat and you can't stand for the first hour, but then you get your "sea legs". So, with the 6hz example, your brain would eventually slow down to the Theta range, which is associated with high creativity and fuzzy-brainedness. This is the stage your brain is usually in when you first wake up.

It definitely works. Where it gets a bit strange is when you start talking about how far you can take this. Some think you can pinpoint VERY specific frequencies to elicit VERY specific results. Here is a list of frequencies the brain operates at under different tasks. Some argue that most of these can be achieved through entrainment. While I haven't done extensive testing at this level, I would venture to guess it is very difficult to do, if not impossible to go to that extent. If it is possible, I would imagine it would have to be achieved in a VERY controlled environment.

One of the biggest parts I'm not entirely clear on (and I haven't been able to figure out or find an answer for yet) is whether or not the listener has to be concentrating on or even aware of the tones for this to work. I would imagine not, but I would think that it would start entraining faster if you were concentrating on the tones. With many of the "new agey" solutions you can find on the internet, you will find that music usually plays over the tones (which are audible), and it asks you to relax and concentrate for a period of time.

I've done a number of sound design projects that incorporate this type of thing into the final product. I'm actually in the testing stage of one such project right now. Very cool stuff. I'll report back once I have more that I am allowed to share with you.

Here's another informative site on the matter.

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Actually there is a lot of truth to these sound induced psychological effects. The "digital drug" type of cds actually use a specific type of formula to change our brainwave states, and it is actually measurable on EEG machines. This is accomplished by producing two sounds, one in the left ear and one in the right, that are at a slightly different frequency. Our brain takes theses incoming sounds (must be using headphones so that the left and right channels are discretely entering only the left and right ears) and tries to make sense of them. Just like a synth with two oscillators (one slightly detuned) produces a "beating" effect, our brain does the same thing. The frequency of the "beat" between left and right is then reflected as the artificially induced brainwave frequency.

  • This is interesting, but could you please elaborate on what exactly is accomplished by this "beating" effect and artificially induced brainwave frequency? – Roger Middenway Dec 2 '10 at 22:39
  • @Austin Shannon - Do you have a citation for this? – Miles B. Dec 3 '10 at 5:32
  • Basically, our brain "waves" a certain frequency depending on what state we are in. ie, sleeping, reading, meditating, taking a test, playing a game... So, we can induce these states "artificially" through these sound techniques. Here is plenty more information on the topic: sites.google.com/site/pathlakeinstitute/brainwave-entrainment web-us.com/thescience.htm – Austin Shannon Dec 3 '10 at 18:08
  • @Austin @Miles - added an answer since my reply is too long... See below. – Colin Hart Dec 5 '10 at 19:45

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