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Hallucinating Sound

Friday, March 21, 2008 - 01:02 AM

Hello everyone. Jad here. I wanna tell you real quick about my experience hallucinating the sound of bees. And Fleetwood Mac.

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.

Second entry:

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.


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Comments [18]

3rd Year Au.D. Student

Interesting story! Two points of order: 1. cochlear implants are NOT a chip put into the brain--they are a series of electrode contacts that are wrapped around the auditory nerve in the cochlea that deliver electrical impulses to trigger the perception of sound. Calling them a chip implanted into the brain is misleading and unnecessarily increases fears and anxiety related to the implantation surgery, which is a fairly minor outpatient surgery, as surgeries go. 2. Cochlear implants must be both implanted and activated. The woman mentioned would not have noticed any change immediately upon implantation, but rather would have noticed it upon activation when the device goes live.

Mar. 22 2014 12:27 PM
matt from lancaster PA

I see this is a bit old but I must share 2 things with you.

1. I have been suffering from terrible migraines since I was little. They are much worse now (I'm 38 now and Male)AT times these migraine attacks can be debilitating. When they are and only then I get bits and pieces of audio that I have heard sometime in my lifetime. It will "play" on repeat over, and over, and over, and over and it drives me crazy to the point where I have to have some sort of low white noise for me to focus on but at a low volume. My neurologist says this is the brains way of telling the body it is in distress.

2. Ok, this past weekend for a span of 3-4 days (daze) I was hallucinating. It was caused by a change/bad combo of medication. I won't say in a public forum what they are because I don't want to be responsible for some dummy getting these meds and trying to drop out. Trust me, It wasn't really that much fun. However, I am a musician. The best part about this weird experience is that I was IN FACT hallucinating sound! Something that I didn't know was humanly possible. I've heard people talking about it and I've seen it in movies but this I thought was real. AT first I thought I had a television turned. It wasn't. I checked the entire house looking for the music I was hearing. Then I focused on the music. REally following it. It became louder and I realized it was original music ideas coming from my own brain. I frantically searched for any guitar I had near by to find the notes. I stopped the meds because I was scared. Scared as hell but, the music didn't stop. It's like a switch now that I seem to be able to turn on when I want to except I don't know what I'm going to hear.I just wanted to share this because this was the closest thing I could find that was similar experience.

Aug. 14 2013 06:52 PM
carey from Salt Lake City UT

On this episode about hallucinatory hearing, there was a section discussing the popularity of country-western music in far-flung areas such as South Africa and India by a Columbia University professor who has written a book about this subject. Please send his name and title of publication

Feb. 28 2011 11:27 AM

Like Miss Suzy I sometimes "hear" voices when I'm semi-dozing. In my case it's strings of words which are grammatically correct but don't make much sense. Heard in the mind, not with the ears. It's like the brain is on auto-play and I usually go to sleep soon after.

Sep. 18 2010 10:02 AM

Oh! How I love "The Things They Carried" It is such an amazing literary piece. Now I'm compelled to pull it off the shelf and read it again... Thanks!

Jun. 30 2010 05:49 PM
Scott McGregor

In another show you talked about having a song stuck in your head for a long time. I'm wondering if the parts of the brain that process and recognize music aren't running all the time, inventing imaginary music -- even when we aren't hallucinating music -- but that we don't often attend to them. But sometimes when our brain doesn't have something else more important to attend to, it chooses to attend to that inner music -- and we perceive it as one of those tunes that is "stuck in our heads" if we have plenty of other auditory stimuli to process, and we perceive it as a hallucination when there is no other auditory stimuli grabbing our attention with as much energy.

Jun. 15 2009 12:34 AM

love your show^^

Nov. 17 2008 04:42 PM
Miss Suzy

My daughter and I both hear voices -- right before falling asleep. NO - there are no voices telling us to do things and no voice actually speaks to us. It is as if someone were passing a microphone around at a party, picking up snippets. My daughter hears songs, I do not, but I do hear other languages. I have a hearing loss. She does not.
I was hoping that someone in that segment would mention people like us, but we've never heard of anyone else who experiences this. We're pretty much normal in other ways, and this doesn't bother either of us. It was a wonderful segment, by the way. Thank you.

Sep. 11 2008 12:42 PM
Chris Fish, BC-HIS

I've been fitting hearing aids for 11 or so years - I have heard the question "Why do I hear music" an average of appx. once per year since 1997, usually from eldery shut-in types, (mostly WOMEN - ALL hearing impaired).

The phenominon has been reported to me by people seemingly on the verge of dementia, by individuals who are "sharp as a tack", by dullards, and brilliant people alike.

It's been described as "vague and distant" or "clear and distinct" - often with lyics and full arrangement.

Most Recently a 92 year old widow who lives alone told me that since she lost one of her hearing aids, she's been hearing her deseased husband singing scales. She's not sure she wants him to go away when her hearing aid is replaced...

I wonder if the lonelyness factor has been taken into consideration as a causal factor, along with the hearing loss - social isolation is a significant side effect of moderate- to-profound losses.

Apr. 01 2008 12:48 AM
ryan f.g.

When will this episode be available as a podcast?

Mar. 29 2008 11:32 AM

Upon starting to read this post I immediately thought of the way the music is portrayed to invade the composer's head at random times and apparently quite abruptly in "Trois couleurs: Bleu" (1993). Still one of my favorite films, and on my mind recently after having been in Paris a couple weeks ago.

Mar. 23 2008 03:22 PM

The Quaker religion builds its whole service on this idea of silence creating auditory hallucinations. This would be an interesting follow-up to the idea of silence in the religious realm, probably dating far back to the Eastern tradition. Not to mention the silence-driven music of Morton Feldman or John Cage, in the non-religious realm.

The Northern English Quaker poet Basil Bunting, in the notes on his poem "Briggflatts" (the name of a meeting house) said, "In silence, having swept dust and litter from our minds, we can detect the pulse of God’s blood in our veins, more persuasive than words, more demonstrative than a diagram." Either way, silence does strange things.

Mar. 23 2008 10:56 AM

Oliver Sacks is absolutely, unquestionably, my hero. I just finished reading Musicophilia, and loved it. The subject matter is so fascinating, and your story makes it all even better!

Mar. 22 2008 07:39 PM

I really like this show. My favorite one was the space episode. they sound so fascinating.

Mar. 22 2008 01:54 PM
Susan DePalma

I just listened to the show, which I found fascinating. I relate to your guest/subject, the man who was in his 80s or 90s and was a therapist, who examined the songs that he heard. I have only the normal-person amount of songs passing through my head, but I have discovered that, if you sing the song through, you will figure out why your subconscious has chosen the particular song. (His example was "Oh bring back my Bonny to me.")

I was once in Grand Central Station, heading to a memorial for a full-term baby that friends had lost, whom they had named Rosie. I was waiting for the train, and in my head was Paul Simon's "Me & Julio down by the schoolyard", just endlessly the chorus, and I wondered "WHY am I singing this song?" So I forced myself to sing/imagine the rest of the song, and there is a verse line: "Goodbye Rosie, the queen of coronas." Almost made me cry to discover that.

Ever since then, I have paid more attention to the song in my head. Often there is a reason for it, though it is as often quite banal. But it does seem to me that the mind is sort of "deejaying" a soundtrack for our lives.

Mar. 21 2008 08:50 PM
Steve Orfield


Here are a couple more links to our anechoic chamber. We have talked a bit with Ira Flatow about doing a feature.


Steve Orfield
Orfield Labs

Mar. 21 2008 04:42 PM
Connor Walsh

When I was 11, I wandered into a kinda anechoic chamber – at the science museum in Paris, it seems like a zig-zagging corridor with pointy walls. But I had just walked round a corner and suddenly called out for my father who was nearby – the sudden deprivation of sound freaked me out! I've wanted to go to an anechoic chamber ever since.

Fab "illustrated blog post" Jad, thanks!

Mar. 21 2008 03:58 AM

I recently saw Werner Herzog's documentary, Land of Silence and Darkness about Fini Straubinger, a deaf, blind woman (in Germany I believe). She, and some of the other deaf blind people in the film speak about how being deaf is not at all silent. They describe it as violent and unbearably noisy at times.

Mar. 20 2008 11:24 PM

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