Please Just Stop the Music

Isn’t it irritating when you can’t get a song out of your head? Particularly when it’s the same section on repeat. But what if it never stopped? Think noisy neighbors you can never escape. This is a fact of life for 1 in 10 thousand people over the age of 65


Musical ear syndrome is a form of auditory hallucination where the sufferer will hear music on repeat just as though it were really being played. Mrs Gamester, a grandmother from Liverpool, developed the syndrome in 2010 and describes it as “a tenor, a man’s voice and it’s a nice voice.” Since that time she has heard, among other things, God Save The Queen, Silent Night, You’ll Never Walk Alone and Abide with me. The latter is very common among those with hallucinations with about a 50% chance the sufferer will hear it. At least, then, these ‘noisy neighbors’ have good taste.

These hallucinations are not due to some sadistic phantom with a taste for hymns. It has been speculated that people will hear familiar and reassuring songs as other external stimuli start to disappear. This explains why the condition usually develops around the age of 61, in those starting to lose their hearing, as well as in conjunction with depression. However, these reassuring tunes are not much comfort to Mrs Gamester; she describes her fear of speaking out about the condition before now due to the association of ‘hearing voices’ with the stigma of going mad and conditions such as schizophrenia. Yet, a study of musical hallucinations has found psychiatric disorders to be unimportant in the likelihood of developing them. In fact, hearing voices can occur as commonly as 1 in 10 people. So why the stigma? In response, we have our top 3 harmless hallucinations:

1. Charles Bonnet Syndrome. Similarly to musical hallucinations, C.B.S. is common in people with impaired senses, in this case, sight. The syndrome is named for the Swiss Philosopher who wrote about his grandfather’s “visions”. There are over 100,000 cases in the UK alone. C.B.S is likely to develop in 60% people of experiencing serious sight loss. Oliver Sacks, an author and neurologist, tells how one of his patients described his condition as his eyes saying, “Sorry to have let you down. We recognize that blindness is no fun, so we’ve organized this small syndrome, a sort of coda to your sighted life. It’s not much, but it’s the best we can manage.”

2. Hypnagogic Hallucinations. Ever felt like you were dreaming yet not quite asleep? You’re not alone. Hypnagogic and hypnopompic hallucinations are those experienced just as you fall asleep and wake up. Though it has been linked to narcolepsy and sleeping disorders, it’s much too common in the population for a causality link.

3.I see dead people. Seeing those that have passed on is not just the subject of movies. One study at Stanford University found 1/3 people surveyed saw, heard or spoke to a deceased spouses in the months following the loss. In fact the chances of hallucinating a spouse increases with the length of the marriage. These visions are seen as a comfort and natural part of the grieving process.

The cause of all this? Hallucinations have been linked to many things, including mental disorders and both prescription and recreational drug use. Scanning techniques such as PET and fMRI allow neurologists to see areas of the brain involved in hallucinating. Yet the main cause for hallucinations is not yet known. And though some drugs have been shown to help with the symptoms, there no current cure for hallucinations. But if it’s any consolation, you’re not going mad.

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