Music playing in the head is a familiar feeling, isn’t it? We all know that some songs maybe so catchy that our mind keeps playing them on and on. All of us have tried to get rid of Britney Spears singing in our head. Everlasting sound that comes is of from some outer source is another matter. It is a big problem.
“Music hallucination is a serious problem. It doesn’t let people sleep and think,” says British psychiatrist Victor Aziz who together with his colleague Nick Warner drew the attention of other scientists to a pshychopatological problem of music in one’s mind.
Most of the people who suffer from this hallucination are elderly. Songs that emerge suddenly in their mind usually come from the outskirts of their memory. Some hear Italian opera that was once the favorite music of their parents. Others have to listen to hymns, jazz or pop songs.
Some get used to this music and even enjoy it, but these are a rear exception. The majority of such people try to stop the music: they close the windows and doors, use earplugs or sleep with a pillow on the head. Of course, none of these helps.
Meantime, music hallucination is not a new phenomenon. Famous composer Robert Shuman, for instance, had music hallucinations at the end of his life. He claimed to have been writing down music that he was hearing from the ghost of Shubert.
However, these hallucinations were not considered disorders for a long time. There were attempts to connect music hallucinations with a whole range of factors including aging, deafness, brain tumors, overdosing with some medicine and even liver transplantation.
Still, it was always clear that music hallucinations must be separated from other similar hallucinations (such as voices or visions) because a person may here melody without any other changes in perception of reality.
The first important research into music hallucinations was conducted in a Japanese psychiatric clinic in 1998. The results showed that six out of 3678 patients were hearing music in their heads. However, these results could not show the real situation as all of the patients had some kind of mental disorder.
Japanese psychiatrists and their followers (who were few) discovered that our brain processes music through a unique net of neurons. First, the brain makes a zone around ears active. This zone starts processing sounds on their basic level.
Then the processed signals are passed to other zones that can perceive more complicated features of music such as rhythm or melody.
It turned out that this net of neurons can start malfunctioning without any adverse effect on other brain zones.
British scientist Timothy Griffiths from Newcastle University Medical School followed researchers who started working in this field. Last year he studied six elderly patients who started hallucinating when they turned deaf.
The scientists discovered that several brain zones became more active during music hallucinations. The result was puzzling for the doctor. “I saw a picture almost similar to that of ordinary people listening to music”, Griffiths admitted.
The main difference according to the expert is that music hallucinations activate only those parts of brain that are responsible for converting simple sounds into complex music.
According to Griffiths, brain zones that process music are constantly looking for models in signals that come from ears. As these zones need a melody they amplify certain sounds corresponding to music and minimize extra noises.
When there are no sounds coming into ears these brain zones may use occasional impulses or signals and try to form some kind of structure going through memories. Thus, several notes may turn into a familiar melody.
For most of us it will mean reproducing a song that will then leave our mind, because a constant flow of information that our ears receive suppresses music. Deaf people do not receive this flow of information. That is why they can hear music all the time.
This is not only a problem of deaf people, though. British medical experts say that about 10000 people at the age of 65 suffer from this hallucination. Aziz and Warner analyzed as many as 30 cases of such disorder (an average patient was 78 years old and a third of them was deaf).
The results showed that women hear music more often than men. In two thirds of cases elderly people hear religious music. Aziz thinks that people will have hallucinations of pop and classical music in the future – it depends on what they listen to day by day.
Psychiatrists think that music hallucinations take place when people are deprived of surroundings rich in sounds, become deaf or live in isolation.
When there are no sounds supplied by ears brain starts producing impulses that are interpreted as sounds. Then it resorts to the help of memories about music and here the song starts.
Aziz claims that music hallucinations are also common among young people. The thing is that we just do not know about this. The scientist found a 28-year-old American who got used to music hallucinations and even considers them a source of comfort: music in his head reflects his emotional state.
“It is playing in the background like a soundtrack,” says this young man. “Sometimes this melody stops which makes me feel unconfident as if I am suddenly in the wrong place in the wrong time. It seems that something is not right”.
At the moment music hallucinations are considered a rare disorder. However, according to Aziz, they can become a common case as modern man lives in the world overwhelmed with music (consider a new invention: a toothbrush that transmits music through a jaw!).
Music is everywhere – it is not only in your Walkman, radio or TV-set, but in elevators, gyms, shopping centers and streets as well. It will not come as a surprise if it starts playing in our heads. Let’s hope it will not be Britney.