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Surprising Science

The Woman Who Couldn’t Hear Music and the Woman Who Couldn’t Stop

Two strange Oliver Sacks stories about the mind and music from Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.
Do you hear what I hear? (MÓNICA MORALES)

It’s not that she was deaf. She could hear normally. It’s just that music made absolutely no sense to her — to her it was “somewhere between unintelligible and excruciating,” according to renowned psychiatrist and neurologist Oliver Sacks. He had never seen anything like it before. And the fact that everyone else could made the woman feel like a freak. That is, until she learned that she had a neurological condition called amusia and was put in touch with others who share it.

And then there was a woman who kept hearing old songs that weren’t there. She heard them so clearly she went looking in vain for their source in the world around her. But that’s not where they were — something in her brain was playing them just for her. (She was better-off, at least, than the man who hallucinated terrifying Nazi marching songs he’d heard during his Jewish childhood in 1930s Germany.) 

The late Dr. Sacks was fascinated with music and the brain, and these are just two bizarre stories from one of his bestsellers, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.


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