First, some background: In our Pop Music show we talked to music psychologist Diana Deutsch (of 'sometimes behave so strangely') about a mysterious and understudied condition called Musical Hallucinations. As the name suggests, people with this condition hallucinate music. A song will invade their heads, uninvited (like happens to everyone), but in the case of these poor folks, the intruding song is bizarrely vivid, often excruciating loud, emanating from a specific source (like out the window) and often at the wrong speed.
When I asked Diana Deutsch why this happens, her answer: we don’t know, really. But one thing she’s noticed - and others, like neurologists Tim Griffith and Oliver Sacks have noticed this too - the majority of people who suffer from musical hallucinations have hearing loss.
Perhaps, she speculates, when the brain is deprived of sound, it’ll rummage through its own musical memories to fill the silence. Maybe the hearing neurons need exercise. Who knows. Either way, she says a very similar thing can happen with sight when people go blind.
Here's Diana Deutsch:
I wondered about this theory... Does it apply only to permanently hearing-loss?
Or might it apply also to temporary hearing-loss?
Like, what if a person without hearing-loss were to put themselves in a very, very, very quiet place?
Would they hallucinate?
I admit, this question didn’t just pop into my head.
It came from a guy named Steve Orfield, who runs the company Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Here he is giving reporter Larissa Anderson a tour of the labs, including his “anechoic chamber,” which he calls “the quietest room on Earth.” And in passing, he mentions that NASA uses anechoic chambers like his to psychologically test astronauts in training. Space is dead quiet. And apparently, astronauts hallucinating sound is a big enough problem that NASA has to test for it. Interesting, no?
Here's Steve giving Larissa a tour:
I wanted to know if it’s true what he’s saying...
So after some poking around, producer Tony Field and I found ourselves, on a rainy Tuesday, at Bell Labs in New Jersey.
(A truly amazing place, by the way. Bell Labs is the birthplace of the computer, fax machine, laser, transistor, fiberoptic cable and about a thousand other technologies).
Deep in the bowels of a nondescript 1950’s era government building is Bell Lab’s very own anechoic chamber, no longer in use.
The nice folks at Bell Labs agreed to open it up for me.
It’s a frightening room at first glance. The door is a thousand pounds, the walls ten feet thick, and everything – floors, ceilings, all surfaces - is covered in yellow acoustic baffling. Stranger still, the floor is made of a wire mesh grid and suspended ten feet off the ground (to prevent sound reflecting off the floor).
I remember thinking two things as I walked in. One: this place looks like a beehive. Two: I can’t believe how much work it takes to keep out sound.
The picture at the top is me in the room, just before they closed the door.
Door closes. Lights off.
Consider: Every room, even the very quietest rooms, have a tone (in fact, in the radio business, we call this “room tone”).
But this room had NO ROOM TONE. No sound at all.
And it’s impossible to describe what true silence does to your ears. The moment the door went thwuck shut, my ear drums started to flutter. As if air was trying to force it’s way out my ears in little puffs. Felt a wee bit nauseous. Crackling. Like shadow static. I think my ears were physically searching for sound.
After about five minutes... A brief, very vivid flash of bees buzzing, like a swarm zooming by my head, doppler style, en route to attack another hive.
Here’s my first entry:
I’m no idiot. I know my mind invented the bees because ‘bee-hive’ was one of the last thoughts in my head before the lights went out. Regardless, the sound of bees in the dark was disconcerting.
After about twenty minutes, I began to hear a high pitched whine, which persisted. Not a hallucination, I’d later discover. According to the Bell Labbies, this was probably the sound of my circulatory system. I also heard the gentle thud of my heartbeat.
And finally, after about forty five minutes, another blip of sound, this one impossibly quiet and distant... as if drifted to me on the wind from a neighbor’s radio blocks and blocks away... a song.
“Everywhere. I wanna be with you everywhere.”
Fleetwood Mac of all things.
I don’t much care for Fleetwood Mac, but there it was. Just for a second. I remember thinking, how’d Fleetwood Mac get in here? And by here, at first I meant “the room” but then made a mental correction a moment later to “my head.” The room is quiet, my head apparently is not.
Still, why Fleetwood Mac? The answer to that question probably would explain a lot.
The utter randomness of what my brain chose to play me convinced me, at least for the moment, that there’s something to this sonic-deprivation-makes-people-hallucinate theory. But it must be said that there are about five thousand reasons why this is not a true experiment, not the least of which is that I was hoping to hallucinate.
I feel compelled to say I’m not crazy. And just to underline that point, here’s a literary example of musical hallucinations from Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”
“A six-man patrol goes up into the mountains on a basic listening-post operation. The idea’s to spend a week up there, just lie low and listen for enemy movement… they keep strict field discipline. Absolute silence. They just listen…
“So after a couple days the guys start hearing this real soft, kind of wacked-out music. Weird echoes and stuff. Like a radio or something, but it’s not a radio… They try to ignore it…And every night they keep hearing [it]. All kinds of chimes and xylophones. I mean, this is wilderness—no way, it can’t be real—but there it is, like the mountains are tuned in to Radio f--ing Hanoi. Naturally they get nervous. One guy sticks Juicy Fruit in his ears. Another guy almost flips.
In O'Brien's story (fiction, drawn on his real-life experience in Vietnam), the soldiers get so freaked out by the music that they just start making tons of noise… firing guns off at random into the trees all night long, just to drown out the sound. But then, deprivation comes again:
Around dawn things finally get quiet. Like you never even heard quiet before. One of those real thick, real misty days—just clouds and fog, they’re off in this special zone—and the mountains are absolutely dead-flat silent. Like Brigadoon—pure vapor, you know? Everything’s all sucked up inside the fog. Not a single sound, except they still hear it.