Sacks is perhaps best known for his collections of case histories from the far borderlands of neurological experience, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars, in which he describes patients struggling to live with conditions ranging from Tourette's syndrome to autism, parkinsonism, musical hallucination, epilepsy, phantom limb syndrome, schizophrenia, retardation, and Alzheimer's disease.
But this morning, on NPR, I heard about the most fascinating phenomenon.
We are all, to some extent, human jukeboxes, able to program for pleasure and for reference. And while music sometimes sticks around longer than we would like — like a hit tune or an advertising jingle — for the most part we control what's inside our heads.
This story, however, describes what can happen when a person loses control.
For some people, the music comes unbidden, sticks around, makes too much noise and won't go away.Apparently, in the brains of people who are going deaf, or who are simply profoundly BORED, the brain will stimulate itself! The music comes, unbidden. An auditory hallucination fills the ears with sound - and not sound the person even wants to hear!
But what makes it go away? How does the poor tortured patient make it stop?
By opening the actual ears to sounds outside the person's head.
This, it seems to me, is a very sharply drawn picture of everything else in human experience, is it not? We are not made to exist independently of our surroundings. We are not whole and entire in ourselves. We, in fact, become able to make our own surroundings if deprived of real ones. And if we are caught up in the sounds our own heads produce, what is the cure for this isolation? Open the ears. Take in the world. Hear.
What sensible counselor does not recommend this? What practical mother and grandmother do not say, "Are you sad? Do something for someone else. Are you bored? Take up a task. Any task. Are you overwhelmed? Do one small thing to restore your sense of mobility." It just makes sense that the brain would sing to us when we cannot hear anyone else. (But I think that I would not be bored to that level if I were alone on a sailboat.)