Musical Hallucinations - Neuron Network Goes Awry, and Brain Becomes an IPod
By Carl Zimmer
July 12, 2005
The New York Times
For Dr. Lee Bartel – Music and the Brain 2122H
A Summary, Reflection and Response
Dr Victor Aziz, a psychiatrist at St. Cadoc’s Hospital in Wales researches a condition known as Music Hallucination. Music Hallucination is a form of auditory hallucination in which music is heard. This type of auditory hallucination is a different type of mental disturbance than those auditory hallucinations experienced by people with schizophrenia. Schizophrenia patients often hear inner voices while patients with music hallucination only hear music. Musical hallucinations have been occurring throughout history. It is thought that Robert Schumann suffered from this ailment, “legend has it that he said he was taking dictation from Schubert’s ghost.”
Dr. Aziz and his colleague Dr. Nick Warner studied 30 cases of musical hallucination over 15 years in South Wales. In their research they found that in two-thirds of the cases the musical hallucination was the only disturbance experienced by the patients, one-third of the cases were deaf or hard of hearing and women tended to suffer hallucinations more than men. The average age of the patient was 78 years old. Often patients heard songs they had heard repeatedly during their lives or songs that were significant to them emotional/personally. Two-thirds of the subjects were living alone without very much stimulation.
Dr. Tim Griffiths, a neurologist at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne in England performed several brain scans on patients suffering from these music hallucinations. Using a PET, Dr. Griffiths discovered a network of regions in the brain that “became more active as the hallucinations became more intense.” The finding was similar to what you would find in a normal person’s brain while they listen to actual music. The major difference was that the hallucination did not activate the primary auditory cortex, a part of the brain normal activated by auditory stimulation. Even though sound is not coming from the ears the brain still generated occasional, random impulses that were interpreted as musical sound.
Dr. Griffiths also proposed that deafness can cause the “music-seeking circuits [of the brain] to go into overdrive” and this would cause the person to hear music in their minds all the time. There is no cure for music hallucinations though many doctors have tried prescribing antipsychotic drugs and cognitive behaviour therapy. Music hallucinations have become more common and Dr. Aziz suspects that they will become even more frequent in the future because people are becoming more aware of the ailment.
The condition known as “music hallucination” is very interesting and I had no idea that it existed until after reading the article, “Neuron Network Goes Awry, and Brain Becomes an IPod” by Carl Zimmer. We’ve all experienced a “song that we just can’t get out of our head”, but I could never imagine experiencing a song stuck in my head on this level! It would seem to be a very strange and scary experience for those suffering from the ailment.I found it interesting that many of the patients suffering from the problem were elderly and that two-thirds of the sufferers were people who lived alone and did not get very much stimulation. Growing up I was always told, “your brain is a muscle; use it or lose it!” and there is definitely a correlation between adequate stimulation and music hallucinations. The study even showed that patients that moved out of isolation and into nursing homes where they were able to interact with other people showed improvement in regards to their hallucinations. The only problem is that if the patient had lost their hearing it’s hard to “use it” to ensure that problems like music hallucinations don’t occur. It would be interesting to see what kind of treatment could be available for these people because simply turning on a radio they can’t even hear will not help matters. Could they use some sort of touch-rhythmic therapy (i.e. - rhythm they can feel - by tapping them on the shoulder or leg) in order to get a sense of musical stimulation?
I also found it very interesting that the brains of patients suffering from musical hallucinations had similar brain regions activated as a person listening to actual music. To me, this illustrated the brain’s great capacity for musical memory. It was fascinating that the same parts of the brain (with the exception of the primary auditory cortex) could “remember” what it is to hear music. This leads me to wonder: would the PET scanning technique reveal similar outcomes if a musician thought about a piece of music? I know that I am capable of hearing music in my head – whether I am looking at a score or whether I am just remembering a great song. Would these findings be similar and could a patient begin to control their music hallucinations by thinking of another song, and in turn, drown out the hallucination?
I think that the moral of the story when it comes to the condition of music hallucination is that it is important keep our minds active at all times, especially in old age. Just as completing crossword and Sudoku puzzles, and reading the paper and books will help to keep our minds sharp, we must also keep our musical mind sharp. Listen to music and if possible, make music on a regular basis. This will help to keep the synapses firing in the auditory cortex of the brain and hopefully fend off any music hallucinations looming in the dark corners of our minds.
On a different note, I would be interested to see what kind of songs people start hallucinating in the future, especially those of my students. Will they start hallucinating death metal songs? Will The Red Hot Chilli Peppers come back to haunt them in their old age? Or will it be Britney Spears coming to “Hit them more time?” I think that is the scariest thought of all! Since all of the music hallucinations were songs that the patients knew I think it is important that people surround themselves with good music so that they don’t end up hallucinating “Mambo Number Five” or “This is the song that doesn’t end” in old age. Personally, I would rather have more dignified exit music as I dance off the stage of life into the next.