Tuesday, July 12, 2005

I Really Shouldn't Read Health News

But when I stumbled across (via Gawker) a link to this article in the NYT, I couldn't help myself. "Neuron Network Goes Awry, and Brain Becomes an IPod"--okay, never mind the product placement, this article proposes a non-psychological explanation for something that has often happened to me. Now, of course, I have diagnosed myself as suffering from mild "musical hallucinations," linked, naturally, to my equally self-diagnosed early hearing loss. Don't let me near the Health pages every again, please.

Since the article will soon disappear behind subscription, below the fold are a few of the information-bearing paragraphs.

Dr. Aziz believes that people tend to hear songs they have heard repeatedly or that are emotionally significant to them. "There is a meaning behind these things," he said.

His study also shows that these hallucinations are different from the auditory hallucinations of people with schizophrenia. Such people often hear inner voices. Patients like Mr. King hear only music.

The results support recent work by neuroscientists indicating that our brains use special networks of neurons to perceive music. When sounds first enter the brain, they activate a region near the ears called the primary auditory cortex that starts processing sounds at their most basic level. The auditory cortex then passes on signals of its own to other regions, which can recognize more complex features of music, like rhythm, key changes and melody.


When Dr. Griffith's subjects hallucinated, they used only the parts of the brain that are responsible for turning simple sounds into complex music.

These music-processing regions may be continually looking for signals in the brain that they can interpret, Dr. Griffiths suggested. When no sound is coming from the ears, the brain may still generate occasional, random impulses that the music-processing regions interpret as sound. They then try to match these impulses to memories of music, turning a few notes into a familiar melody.

For most people, these spontaneous signals may produce nothing more than a song that is hard to get out of the head. But the constant stream of information coming in from the ears suppresses the false music.

Dr. Griffith proposes that deafness cuts off this information stream. And in a few deaf people the music-seeking circuits go into overdrive. They hear music all the time, and not just the vague murmurs of a stuck tune. It becomes as real as any normal perception.

"What we're seeing is an amplification of a normal mechanism that's in everyone," Dr. Griffiths said.


Dr. Aziz also noted that two-thirds of his subjects were living alone, and thus were not getting much stimulation. One patient experienced fewer musical hallucinations when Dr. Aziz had her put in a nursing home, he said, "because then she was talking to people, she was active."

There is no standard procedure for treating musical hallucinations. Some doctors try antipsychotic drugs, and some use cognitive behavioral therapy to help patients understand what's going on in their brains. "Sometimes simple things can be the cure," Dr. Aziz said. "Turning on the radio may be more important than giving medication."

And since I've gone so far as to diagnose myself with hearing loss and musical hallucinations, I now have a ready-made excuse for listening to NPR all the time! And for hearing the "All Things Considered" theme music when I wander around without my walkman. Dr. Aziz's research indicates that the condition tends to be most noticable in older people. What I have to look forward to!


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