The New York Times, February 13th, 2014 Photo credit: wallpaperswide.com
In 2011, a 66-year-old retired math teacher walked into a London neurological clinic hoping to get some answers. A few years earlier, she explained to the doctors, she had heard someone playing a piano outside her house. But then she realized there was no piano.
The phantom piano played longer and longer melodies, like passages from Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto number 2 in C minor, her doctors recount in a recent study in the journal Cortex. By the time the woman — to whom the doctors refer only by her first name, Sylvia — came to the clinic, the music had become her nearly constant companion. Sylvia hoped the doctors could explain to her what was going on.
Dr. Kumar argues that these results support a theory developed by Karl Friston of the Wellcome Trust Center for Neuroimaging. (Dr. Friston is a co-author of the new study.) Dr. Friston has proposed that our brains are prediction-generating machines.
Our brains, Dr. Friston argues, generate predictions about what is going to happen next, using past experiences as a guide. When we hear a sound, for example — particularly music — our brains guess at what it is and predict what it will sound like in the next instant. If the prediction is wrong — if we mistook a teakettle for an opera singer — our brains quickly recognize that we are hearing something else and make a new prediction to minimize the error.
Scientists have long known that people with musical hallucinations often have at least some hearing loss. Sylvia, for example, needed hearing aids after getting a viral infection two decades ago.
Dr. Kumar’s theory could explain why some people with hearing loss develop musical hallucinations. With fewer auditory signals entering the brain, their error detection becomes weaker. If the music-processing brain regions make faulty predictions, those predictions only grow stronger until they feel like reality. “There is nothing from the senses to constrain them,” Dr. Kumar said.
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