My mother-in-law has a radio in her head. She enjoys audio hallucinations. Well, “enjoy” may not be the word. Sometimes, I think, she enjoys them. At other times she endures them. The real problem is she can’t turn them off. For the best part of a year now she’s been concerned that muzak is regularly playing in her apartment. She’s asked us to have a word with the management to get it turned off. Unfortunately we can’t hear it at all. It’s not playing for us.
This muzak is certainly real for Evelyn. She’ll even sing along with the song that’s playing. It’s not like an earworm or a song she’s deliberately brought to mind. As far as she’s concerned the sound is coming from an external source. She certainly has no control over the playlist. The music arrives without warning and leaves at its own discretion. And when we tell her we can’t hear it she is simply disbelieving.
The late great neurologist and author, Oliver Sacks, identified the extent of this kind of hallucination in his wonderful book Musicophilia (2007). It seems it’s a much more common phenomenon than anyone had previously thought.
The hallucinations manifest especially for people who have experienced significant hearing loss. Sacks believes they’re a reaction by the brain to a lack of audio stimulation. He suggests that, by way of response, the brain generates its own music, using the catalogue of audio experience it has built up over its lifetime.
While that’s extraordinary, it’s equally remarkable that the brain’s performance of its library of music is well nigh perfect. Even the songs it has created itself (for several weeks Evelyn was bombarded by a song the lyrics of which were constructed around her own name) are perfectly played, wonderfully arranged and beautifully produced.
Sacks has done a lot of work on the connection between music and the brain. He writes in the forward to Musicophilia that “While music can affect all of us—calm us, animate us, comfort us, thrill us, or serve to organize and synchronise us at work or play—it may be especially powerful and have great therapeutic potential for patients with a variety of neurological conditions.”
In his book An Anthropologist on Mars (1995) he tells the story of “The Last Hippie”, Greg F, a patient with profound amnesia whose life is trapped in a previous time and whose constant soundtrack is the music of the Grateful Dead.
In 1991 Sacks testified in US Senate hearings on the power of music therapy. There he met Mickey Hart, the Grateful Dead’s percussionist who also has an intense interest in the connection between rhythm and healing. At Hart’s request, Sacks went to the Grateful Dead’s concert in New York’s Madison Square Garden and found himself so moved by the music’s rhythms that he ended up dancing on the stage.
If you want a sample of the Dead’s music, try:
- Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey, June 17 1991, a show from around the time of Sacks’ experience.
- And for a taste of the Dead at their peak, Beat Club, Bremen, West Germany, April 21 1972, offers an excellent recording from their 1972 tour of Europe (scroll through to 1.47 for the music).
Please listen to them both loud.
Fuelled by the therapeutic possibilities of the Dead’s music, Sacks brought Greg F to a later concert and found that Greg became another person, filled with reminiscences reinvested from his past. As a result Sacks came to use Dead songs to give Greg access to formerly lost memories.
There seems no simple cure for Evelyn’s unwelcome radio station however. Sacks believed her unbidden soundtrack is unlikely to go away. He found that many people learn to live with it, even to embrace it. This hasn’t happened to Evelyn yet. But she is heartened that it is relatively commonplace, even normal.
Chris Nichol is a Wellington-based communications consultant, theologian, alto saxophonist and singer. Most recently he’s been a member of the Dunstan Rangers whose CDs are available in all good second hand shops.
Cartoon by Jay Cassells.