Who Is Singing Me Lullabies? : Krulwich Wonders... One night, an elderly woman woke up to a female voice singing Irish ballads. The problem was the voice was in her head. Dr. Oliver Sacks was able to determine why she heard the voice. But the more interesting question was -- whose voice was it?
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Who Is Singing Me Lullabies?

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Who Is Singing Me Lullabies?

Who Is Singing Me Lullabies?

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Now, take yourself back to your very, very first memory when you were - I don't know, how old? Most people can remember things that happened when they were maybe three or four. But earlier? This next story asks how far back can you go.

Our correspondent Robert Krulwich tells the tale.

ROBERT KRULWICH: This is the story of a woman - an older woman - in her 80s who goes to sleep one night in her room in an old people's home in the Bronx in New York.

And according to Dr. Oliver Sacks, the writer and neurologist…

Dr. OLIVER SACKS (Writer, Neurologist): She has a dream.

KRULWICH: In her dream, she hears a female voice singing, humming song.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: It sounds like an Irish ballad. And as she told Dr. Sacks when he wrote about her years ago - he's updated her story in his new book, "Musicophilia" - the first song she heard was followed by a second song.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: It was also Irish-sounding. And that one was followed by a third song.

(Soundbite of music)

Dr. SACKS: And then she wakes up.

KRULWICH: But even awake, her head is still filled with sounds - those same songs keep going…

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: …and going, and going. And not only that…

Dr. SACKS: They are very loud, so loud that she's puzzled.

KRULWICH: At first, this woman - Dr. Sacks calls her Mrs. O.C. - at first, she thought, well, these voice have got to be coming from a radio somewhere.

Dr. SACKS: Absolutely. And she wandered around (unintelligible) sort of looked for a radio. But there wasn't a radio on. Everyone else was asleep.

KRULWICH: Strange. Now, if I were an 88-year-old woman in an old people's home, in the middle of the night, hearing music everywhere that no one else hears, that would frighten me.

Dr. SACKS: Well, it frightened her.

KRULWICH: She must have thought, I guess I'm going crazy.

Dr. SACKS: You know, hearing things.

KRULWICH: Yeah. But later that morning, when she saw the house doctor…

Dr. SACKS: He said no, Mrs. O.C., you're not mad, and the mad don't hear music. They only hear voices. You must see a neurologist.

KRULWICH: Who happens to be you.

Dr. SACKS: Right.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: When they first met, Dr. Sacks had to yell over the noise inside Mrs. O.C.'s head. She could barely hear him.

Dr. SACKS: She was now thoroughly rattled, and the music continued deafening her.

KRULWICH: So Dr. Sacks asked her, could you hum these songs? Could you describe them? And she said, yup. They're Irish. They're sung by a female and somehow they're vaguely familiar.

Dr. SACKS: And they were associative for her with childhood and early childhood.

KRULWICH: And then she asked, well, do you think maybe I had a stroke?

Dr. SACKS: It could be, I said, although I'm not sure that I've encountered a stroke like this.

KRULWICH: So then what's your next move? What do you do?

Dr. SACKS: I wanted to look at her brainwaves.

KRULWICH: Which required an electroencephalogram or an EEG machine. But they had to find the machine which meant there was going to be a bit of a wait. And while they waited, the songs in Mrs. O.C.'s head - they start to fade just a little.

Dr. SACKS: Yeah, it's diminishing. It hums and goes. It's getting softer.

KRULWICH: So when it was time for the exam…

Dr. SACKS: We said, sit. Make yourself comfortable.

KRULWICH: And when you hear music, whenever the song starts…

Dr. SACKS: I want you to raise a finger.

KRULWICH: Did she raise your finger?

Dr. SACKS: She raised her finger several times. And each time, one saw some increase in voltage over the right temporal lobe.

KRULWICH: So she wasn't crazy. There was a spasm of electrical activity in a very particular region of her brain.

Dr. SACKS: Exactly. And those parts of the brains where music is perceived, imagined, hallucinated…

KRULWICH: So maybe Mrs. O.C. had a stroke one night that affected the cells in her brain and produced music in her head. Musical epilepsy was called by a famous Canadian.

Dr. SACKS: Wilder Penfield the great Canadian neurosurgeon.

KRULWICH: In the 1940s, Dr. Penfield operated on scores of patients. And when he had them on the table with their brains exposed, he would take a probe and very lightly touch different areas of their brains. You don't feel pain up there, so the patients could tell him in real time what they were experiencing - sounds, colors. But when he touched certain areas of the brain, his patients heard music.

(Soundbite of music)

KRUWICJ: And the music they heard, Penfield reported, was generic - everybody's music - Christmas carols or famous songs.

(Soundbite of song, "Ol' Man River")

Mr. PAUL ROBESON (Actor; Singer): Ol' man river.

KRULWICH: So when you examine Mrs. O.C., you knew about Dr. Penfield and his patients. You knew about the songs they heard. So what did you think?

Dr. SACKS: I thought she was having musical seizures.

KRULWICH: But in Mrs. O.C.'s case, there was a difference.

(Soundbite of music)

Dr. SACKS: I was struck by the nostalgia which seemed to attach to the song she heard.

KRULWICH: Mrs. O.C.'s songs weren't the songs all of us hear. Hers seemed more personal, like real memories. So he asked her about her childhood and discovered that she was from Ireland, that her father had died before she was born, and her mother had died when she was only 5 years old.

Dr. SACKS: Her childhood had been rather desolate in a way - orphaned, alone. She was sent to America to live with a rather forbidding maiden aunt. She had no conscious memory of the first five years of her life; no memory of her mother, of Ireland, of home.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: So who was that singing to her? Scientists don't know really how a brain chooses the music that we keep in our heads. There is probably no secret vault of songs from early infancy, no scientific evidence, anyway, but Dr. Sacks could tell that Mrs. O.C. longed for some version of her missing mother.

Dr. SACKS: She had always felt this as a keen and painful sadness, this lack of forgetting of the earliest, most precious years of her life.

KRULWICH: And so because he was her doctor and because it might help…

Dr. SACKS: I am something of a romantic at heart.

KRULWICH: So Dr. Sacks gave Mrs. O.C. - not a science paper - he gave her a short story by the writer H.G. Wells which imagines a character who can magically open the secret door to his childhood memories.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: And he said to Mrs. O.C., read this story and maybe your stroke -maybe you can think that it opened that door in you. Now, this is not orthodox science.

Dr. SACKS: I sometimes depart from strict neurology.

KRULWICH: But if you want, he said, think of this stroke as a gift that allows you to glimpse - you're 80 years or 88 years old - to glimpse what happened at the very start of your life when you were a baby girl, and the voice that you're hearing, singing you lullabies, let's say that that's really your mother's voice - your missing mother. And Mrs. O.C. thought, well, yeah. That fits.

Dr. SACKS: I'm on old woman with a stroke in an old people's home. But I feel I'm a child in Ireland again. I feel my mother's arms. I see her. I hear her voice singing.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: Was that really her mother? Dr. Sacks does not know.

Dr. SACKS: I'm now more inclined to think that this was probably, you know,, and she's richly infused with fantasy and with longing.

KRULWICH: The songs, though, they are real. Irish mothers, 80 years earlier, had indeed sung those songs to their children. In Mrs. O.C.'s case, however, the songs got weaker and then weaker and then they vanished. And once they had gone, her brain had apparently healed itself, she discovered that she missed her disease. She missed those songs. And she missed that voice - especially the voice.

Robert Krulwich, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: You can hear more stories from Robert in his podcast Krulwich on Science at npr.org/podcast.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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