Some People Have Songs Permanently Stuck In Their Heads

By Nolan Moore on Sunday, February 16, 2014
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“Near, far, wherever you are / I believe that the heart does go on / Once more you open the door / And you’re here in my heart / And my heart will go on and on” —Celine Dion, “My Heart Will Go On”

In A Nutshell

Ever had a song stuck in your head? That’s unfortunate, but nothing compare to people suffering from musical hallucinations: They hear songs 24/7. Thanks to overactive auditory cortices, these folks are stuck with earworms that just won’t go away.

The Whole Bushel

In 2007, Rolling Stone polled its readers on the most annoying songs of all time. After voting was finished, the magazine released a Top 20 list that included classics like “Who Let the Dogs Out,” “Macarena,” and “My Humps.” Now, can you imagine those songs stuck in your head, playing over and over? If you’re like 99 percent of the people on Planet Earth, chances are good you’ve suffered from an “earworm.” A tune gets stuck in your head, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t shake it out. You sing the lyrics or turn on your iPod in a desperate attempt to drown out your brain, but the song keeps on playing.

Of course, earworms fade away eventually, but what if they didn’t? What if you heard music nonstop, every second of every day? Believe it or not, there are quite a few people who suffer from these permanent earworms. Known as musical hallucinations, these songs sound incredibly realistic, almost like listening to a radio. In fact, startled first-time victims often ask others if they can hear the music as well. Some patients hear multiple tunes, and others only hear one song again and again. But regardless of the number, none of the victims ever hear lyrics, and the music never stops.

Curious as to what causes this mental music, Dr. Victor Aziz and Dr. Nick Warner of Wales examined 30 people suffering from these bizarre disturbances. First, they noticed most victims were elderly; the average age was about 78. More women experienced hallucinations than men, and quite a few victims were hearing-impaired. Patients heard a variety of songs, ranging from “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” to “Three Blind Mice,” but the whopping majority (two-thirds, to be precise) heard religious music like “Abide With Me.” Aziz thinks these songs aren’t exactly random. He thinks they’re tunes the patient used to listen to in younger days, and perhaps were important emotionally speaking in days gone by. (Interestingly, a second study conducted by Haggai Hermesh of Tel Aviv University noted that 41 percent of people experiencing musical hallucinations were also suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder.)

Next, doctors used PET scans to analyze their patients’ brains. Everything looked normal in the primary auditory cortex, the part of the brain that identifies pitch and loudness. It was then researchers noticed something odd about the secondary and tertiary cortices. The secondary cortex deals with harmony, melody, and rhythmic patterns while the tertiary cortex puts all the different parts together so we can process the song as a whole. And in patients suffering musical hallucinations, these two cortices were going nuts. They were acting like someone nearby had actually turned on a radio. What was going on here?

Researchers theorized that these crazy cortices were big-time workaholics. They were constantly searching for impulses, desperate for any signal they could turn into music. And when there weren’t any actual noises traveling up the ear canal, the cortices started working overtime, interpreting any signal created by the brain as music. That’s why deaf people are so susceptible to these hallucinations. They’ve been cut off from actual sound for so long that their brains were freaking out, desperately hunting for anything they could turn into a song. But it isn’t just the hard of hearing who struggle with this condition. Sometimes it starts after patients suffer epileptic seizures, contract Lyme disease, or start taking particular drugs.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot doctors can do to cure musical hallucinations. While some patients have tried antipsychotic medications, these attempts at a cure generally don’t work. Some psychiatrists think anti-OCD drugs might do the trick, but it’ll take years of testing before that idea is okayed. Really, the only thing victims can do is listen to actual music. By turning on a CD, the brain gets a chance to process actual signals, calming the secondary and tertiary cortices. Of course, if they’re hard of hearing, that isn’t going to do much good. Those patients can only pray their brains never start playing “My Heart Will Go On.”

Show Me The Proof

NY Times: Neuron Network Goes Awry, and Brain Becomes an iPod
Musical Torment
HowStuffWorks: Why do songs get stuck in my head?
Rolling Stone: The 20 Most Annoying Songs