Blog Archives

“Every breath you take”: A brief look at love obsessions in popular music

“You are an obsession/I cannot sleep/I am your possession/Unopened at your feet
/There’s no balance/No equality/Be still I will not accept defeat/I will have you/Yes, I will have you/I will find a way and I will have you/Like a butterfly/A wild butterfly/I will collect you and capture you” (Lyrics to the song ‘Obsession’ by Animotion)

Like the word ‘addiction’, one thing we can say about the word ‘obsession’ that there is no absolute agreed definition. Dictionary definitions of obsession refer to an obsession as:

  • “…an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind” or “a state in which someone thinks about someone or something constantly or frequently especially in a way that is not normal” (Oxford Dictionary).
  • “…unable to stop thinking about something; too interested in or worried about something” (Cambridge Dictionary)
  • http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/obsessed
  • “…a state in which someone thinks about someone or something constantly or frequently especially in a way that is not normal” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
  • “…an emotional state in which someone or something is so important to you that you are always thinking about them, in a way that seems extreme to other people” (Macmillan Dictionary).

More medical definitions (such as Dorland’s Medical Dictionary) describe obsession as a recurrent, persistent thought, image, or impulse that is unwanted and distressing (ego-dystonic) and comes involuntarily to mind despite attempts to ignore or suppress it”. Given all these overlapping but differing definitions, it can be concluded that obsession means slightly different things to different people. In the latest (fifth) edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), an obsession must be distressing to be classed as a disorder. (And that’s why my obsession with music is not problematic).

I deliberately mentioned my self-confessed obsession with music because this article is a (somewhat self-admittedly) frivolous look at obsession in song lyrics. The first song I remember listening to called ‘Obsession’ was in 1981 by Scottish band Scars (from one of my all-time favourite LPs Author! Author!), quickly followed by Siouxsie and the Banshees’ song ‘Obsession’ on their 1982 LP A Kiss In The Dreamhouse (which reached No.11 in the UK albums chart). Arguably the most famous song entitled ‘Obsession’ was 1984’s top five hit by the US band Animotion (which was actually a cover version as the original was released by Holly Knight and Michael Des Barres) and later covered by The Sugababes and Karen O (lead singer of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the theme song to the US TV mini-series Flesh and Bone). Many artists have recorded songs simply called ‘Obsession’ including Tich, Tinie Tempah, Future Cut, The Subways, Jake Quickenden, Jesus Culture, and Blue Eyed Christ (amongst others).

Almost all songs with the title of ‘Obsession’ have been about being obsessed (or obsessively in love) with another person and are probably not that far removed from songs about love addiction (such as Roxy Music’s ‘Love Is The Drug’, Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’, and Nine Inch Nail’s ‘The Perfect Drug’). Not all obsessional songs have the word ‘obsession’ in their title and probably the most famous songs about being obsessed with someone are ‘Every Breath You Take’ (The Police) and ‘Stan’ (Eminem; in fact the word ‘Stan’ is now sometimes used as a term for overly-obsessive fans of someone or something). As the Wikipedia entry on ‘Every Breath You Take’ notes:

Sting wrote the song in 1982 in the aftermath of his separation from [actress] Frances Tomelty and the beginning of his relationship with [actress, film producer and director] Trudy Styler. The split was controversial…The lyrics are the words of a possessive lover who is watching ‘every breath you take; every move you make’. [Sting said he] ‘woke up in the middle of the night with that line in my head, sat down at the piano and had written it in half an hour…It sounds like a comforting love song. I didn’t realize at the time how sinister it is. I think I was thinking of Big Brother surveillance and control…[Sting] insists [the song is] about the obsession with a lost lover, and the jealousy and surveillance that follow”.

Sting’s experience of writing from what you know and feel is a staple motivation for many songwriters (and probably no different from academics like myself – I tend to write about what I know about). An article in the New York Post by Kirsten Fleming (‘When rockers are stalkers: ‘Love songs’ that cross into obsession‘) features a top ten list of ‘obsessional love’ songs (although I think very few of them are. Much better is the list of ‘greatest stalking songs’ put together by The Scientist on the Rate Your Music website). However, I do think the song-writing process can border on the obsessional and I think the Canadian-American singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette has a realistic (and perhaps representative) take on her song-writing as she noted in an online article:

“For me, what writes songs is passion. So if I’m passionately angry about something or if I’m passionately in love with something or if I’m passionately addicted to something or if I’m passionately curious or scared, this is what creates worlds in art. I think love and anger are two of the most gorgeous life forces, with love being the only one that is bottomless. All of these different feelings that I’ve been running away from my whole life, the only one that has remained bottomless and endless is love. All other emotions seem to ebb and flow and move through once they get my attention long enough to really feel, but love is the one that remains limitless”.

In this interview extract, Morissette uses the word “addicted” in an arguably positive way and echoes a quote I used in a previous blog from Dr. Isaac Marks who said that “life is a series of addictions and without them we die”. Morissette (in a different interview) was also quoted as saying:

“My top addictions are really recovering from love addictions, which is a tough withdrawal that I’ve also written records in the midst of. Probably the worst withdrawal I’ve experienced. Food addiction, which I’ve been struggling with since I was 14, and work addiction it’s the respectable addiction in the west, but it’s actually an addiction to busy-ness and the fear of stopping and being still, and all that would come up from that. Those three are my top ones, and I’ve dabbled in all the other ones but none of them have grasped hold of me like the first one did”.

The band that I think have lyrically explored obsessive love more than any other is Depeche Mode. I’ve followed them from before their first hit right up until the present day. I’ve included their songs on almost every mix tape I’ve made for any girlfriend I’ve had over the last 35 years. Their main songwriter, Martin Gore, explores the dark side of love better than any lyricist I can think of. Whereas Adam Ant wins the prize for the most songs about different types of fetishes and paraphilias, Martin Gore is the lyrical king of obsessive love (although he does occasionally wander into more paraphilic kinds of love such as the sado-masochisticMaster and Servant’. Here are just a few selected lyrics that I hope help argue my case:

  • Extract 1: “Dark obsession in the name of love/This addiction that we’re both part of/
Leads us deeper into mystery/
Keeps us craving endlessly/Strange compulsions/That I can’t control/Pure possession of my heart and soul
/I must live with this reality/I am you and you are me” (‘I Am You’ from Exciter, 2001)
  • Extract 2: I want somebody who cares for me passionately/With every thought and with every breath/Someone who’ll help me see things in a different light/All the things I detest I will almost like” (‘Somebody’ from Some Great Reward, 1984)
  • Extract 3: “Well I’m down on my knees again/And I pray to the only one/Who has the strength to bear the pain/To forgive all the things that I’ve done/Oh girl, lead me into your darkness/When this world is trying it’s hardest
/To leave me unimpressed/
Just one caress from you and I’m blessed” (‘One Caress’ from Songs Of Faith And Devotion, 1993).
  • Extract 4: “Taking hold of the hem of your dress/
Cleanliness only comes in small doses/
Bodily whole but my head’s in a mess/Do you know obsession that borders psychosis?/It’s a sad disease/Creeping through my mind/Causing disabilities/Of the strangest kind/Getting lost in the folds of your skirt/There’s a price that I pay for my mission/Body in heaven and a mind full of dirt/How I suffer the sweetest condition” (‘The Sweetest Condition’ from Exciter, 2001)
  • Extract 5: “It’s only when I lose myself with someone else/That I find myself/I find myself/Something beautiful is happening inside for me/Something sensual, it’s full of fire and mystery/I feel hypnotized, I feel paralized/I have found heaven/Did I need to sell my soul/For pleasure like this?/Did I have to lose control/To treasure your kiss?/Did I need to place my heart/In the palm of your hand?/Before I could even start/To understand” (‘Only When I Lose Myself’ from The Singles, 86-98)
  • Extract 6: “I want you now/
Tomorrow won’t do/
There’s a yearning inside/And it’s showing through/Reach out your hands/And accept my love/We’ve waited for too long/Enough is enough/I want you now” (‘I Want You Now’ from Music For The Masses, 1987)
  • Extract 7: “Don’t say you’re happy/Out there without me/I know you can’t be
/’Because it’s no good/I’m going to take my time/I have all the time in the world
/To make you mine/It is written in the stars above” (‘It’s No Good’ from Ultra, 1997)
  • Extract 8: “Wisdom of ages/Rush over me/Heighten my senses/Enlighten me/Lead me on, eternally/And the spirit of love/Is rising within me/Talking to you now/Telling you clearly/The fire still burns” (‘Insight’ from Ultra, 1997).

These are just a few of the ‘obsessional’ lyrics from Depeche Mode’s back catalogue (and there are plenty of other songs I could have featured). I often think that the lyrics in songs or poetry say far more about the human condition than any paper I have published on the topic, and that is why I am (and will continue to be) a music obsessive.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Dorrell, P. (2005). Is music a drug? 1729.com, July 3. Located at: http://www.1729.com/blog/IsMusicADrug.html

Fleming, K. (2014). When rockers are stalkers: ‘Love songs’ that cross into obsession. New York Post, July 2. Located at: http://nypost.com/2014/07/02/the-10-creepiest-musical-stalkers/

Griffiths, M.D (1999). Adam Ant: Sex and perversion for teenyboppers. Headpress: The Journal of Sex, Death and Religion, 19, 116-119.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Music addiction. Record Collector, 406 (October), p.20.

Morrison, E. (2011). Researchers show why music is so addictive. Medhill Reports, January 21. Located at: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=176870

Salimpoor, V.N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K. Dagher, A. & Zatorre, R.J. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience 14, 257–262.

Smith, J. (1989). Senses and Sensibilities. New York: Wiley.

Fanable Collector: A personal insight into the psychology of a record-collecting completist

Regular readers of my blog will know that I have described myself as a music obsessive and that I am an avid record and CD collector. When I get into a particular band or artist I try to track down every song that artist has ever done – irrespective of whether I actually like the song or not. I have to own every recording. Once I have collected every official recording I then start tracking down unofficially released recordings via bootlegs and fan websites. I have my own books and printed lists (i.e., complete discographies by specific bands and solo artists) that I meticulously tick off with yellow highlighter pen. (In some ways, I am no different to a trainspotter that ticks off train numbers in a book).

I wouldn’t say I am a particularly materialistic person but I love knowing (and feeling) that I have every official recorded output by my favourite musicians. My hobby can sometimes cost me a lot of money (I am a sucker for deluxe box sets) although most of the time I can track down secondhand items and bargains on eBay and Amazon relatively cheaply (plus I have downloaded thousands of bootleg albums for free from the internet). Tracking down an obscure release is as much fun as the listening of the record or CD (i.e., the ‘thrill of the chase’). Almost every record I have bought over the last decade is in mint condition and unplayed (as many records now come with a code to download the record bought as a set of MP3s).

As a record collector, one of the things that make the hobby both fun and (at the same time somewhat) infuriating is the number of different versions of a particular song that can end up being released. As a collector I have an almost compulsive need to own every version of a song that an artist has committed to vinyl, CD, tape or MP3. However, I am grateful that I am not the type of collector that tries to own every physical record/CD released in every country. (My love of The Beatles would mean I would be bankrupt). I only buy releases in other countries if it contains music that is exclusive to that country (e.g., many Japanese CD releases contain one or two tracks that may not be initially released in any other country).

For most artists that I collect from the 1960s to early 1980s, it is fairly easy to collect every officially released song. Artists like The Beatles may have up three to four official versions of a particular song (the single version, the album version, a demo version, a version from another country with a different edit, etc.). With bootleg recordings, the number of versions might escalate to 30 or 40 versions by including live versions, every studio take, etc.). It can become almost endless if you start to collect bootleg recordings of every gig by your favourite artists. (I know this from personal experience).

It was during my avid record buying days in the early 1980s that the ‘completist’ in me started to take hold. Some of you reading this may recall that in 1984, Frankie Goes To Hollywood (FGTH) became only the second band ever to reach the UK No.1 with their first three singles – ‘Relax’, ‘Two Tribes’ and ‘The Power of Love’ (the first band being – not The Beatles, but their Liverpool friends and rivals – Gerry and The Pacemakers). One of the reasons that FGTH got to (and stayed for weeks at) number one was there were thousands of people like me that bought countless different versions of every variation of every single released. For instance, not only did I buy the standard 7”, 12”, cassettes, and picture discs of both ‘Relax’ and ‘Two Tribes’, I bought every new mix that FGTH producer Trevor Horn put out.

Every week, all of the money that I earned from my Saturday job working in Irene’s Pantry would go on buying records from Castle Records in Loughborough. I didn’t care about clothes, sweets, books, etc. All I cared about outside of school was music. Some of my hard earned money went on buying the NME (New Musical Express) every Thursday along with buying other music weeklies if my favourite bands were featured (Melody Maker, Record Mirror, Sounds and Smash Hits to name just a few).

When I got to university to study Psychology at the University of Bradford, my love of music and record buying increased. Not only did I discover other like-minded people but Bradford had a great music scene. One of the first things I did when I got to university was become a journalist for the student magazine (Fleece). Within seven months I was one of the three Fleece editors and I was in control of all the arts and entertainment coverage. The perks of my (non-paid) job was that (a) I got to go to every gig at Bradford University for free, (b) I was sent lots of free records to review for the magazine (all of which I kept and some of which I still have), and (c) I got to see every film for free in return for writing a review. I couldn’t believe my luck.

During this time (1984-1987) my three favourite artists were The Smiths, Depeche Mode, and (my guilty pleasure) Adam Ant. I devoured everything they released (especially The Smiths). As a record collector I not only loved the Smiths music but I loved the record covers, the messages scratched on the vinyl run-out grooves, and Morrissey’s interviews in the music press. It was also during this period that I discovered other bands that later went onto become some of my favourite bands of all time (Propaganda and The Art of Noise being the two that most spring to mind). As a Depeche Mode fan, collecting every track they have ever done has become harder and harder (and more expensive) as they were arguably one of the pioneers of the remix. Although Trevor Horn and the ZTT label took remixing singles to a new level for record collectors, it was Depeche Mode that arguably carried on the baton into the 1990s.

During 1987-1990, my record buying subsided through financial necessity. I was doing my PhD at the University of Exeter and the little money I had went on food, rent, and travel (to see my then girlfriend who lived over 300 miles away). I simply didn’t have the money to buy and collect records the way I had before. Buying singles stopped but I would still buy the occasional album. This was the only period in my life that I didn’t really buy music magazines. (My thinking was that if I didn’t know what was being released I couldn’t feel bad about not buying it).

In the summer of 1990 I landed my first proper job as a Lecturer in Psychology at Plymouth University. For the first time in my life I had a healthy disposable income. My first purchase with my first pay cheque was an expensive turntable and CD player. I also bought loads of CD albums on my growing wish list. What I loved about my hobby was that I could do it simultaneously with my job (i.e., I could listen to my favourite bands at the same time as preparing my lectures or writing my research papers – something that I still do to this day).

When CD singles became popular in the 1990s I became a voracious buyer of music again. Typically bands would release a single across multiple formats with each format containing tracks exclusive to the record, CD and/or cassette. Artists like Oasis and Morrissey (two of my favourites during the 1990s) would release singles in three or four formats (7” vinyl, 10”/12” vinyl, CD single, and cassette single) and I would buy all formats (and to some extent I still do). It was a collector’s paradise but I could afford it. In fact, not only could I afford to buy all the music I wanted, I could buy all the monthly music magazines at the time (Vox, Select, Record Collector, Q, and then a little later Uncut and Mojo), and I could go to gigs and still have money left over.

Since the mid-1990s only one thing has really changed in relation to my music-buying habits and that is there are less and less new bands that I have become a fan of. I still buy lots of new music but I don’t tend to collect the work of contemporary bands. However, the music industry has realized there are huge amounts of money to be made from their back catalogues. I am the type of music buyer that will happily buy a ‘classic’ album again as long as it has an extra disc or two of demo versions, rarities, remixes, and obscure B-sides, that will help me extend and/or complete music collections by the bands I love. Over this year I have already bought box sets by The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, Throbbing Gristle, and David Bowie (to name just four). I have become a retro-buyer but I still crave “new” music by my favourite artists. Yes, I love music and it takes up a lot of my life. However, I am not addicted. My obsessive love of music adds to my life rather than detracts from it – and on that criterion alone I will happily be a music collector until the day that I die.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Belk, R.W. (1995). Collecting as luxury consumption: Effects on individuals and households. Journal of Economic Psychology, 16(3), 477-490.

Belk, R.W. (2001). Collecting in a Consumer Society. New York: Routledge.

Moist, K. (2008). “To renew the Old World”: Record collecting as cultural production. Studies in Popular Culture, 31(1), 99-122.

Pearce, S. (1993). Museums, Objects, and Collections. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Pearce, S. (1998). Contemporary Collecting in Britain. London: Sage.

Reynolds, S. (2004). Lost in music: Obsessive music collecting. In E. Weisbard (Ed.), This Is Pop: In Search of the Elusive at Experience Music Project (pp.289-307). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

A world of disc-overy: Record collecting as an addiction

Regular readers of my blog will know that (a) some of my friends describe me as a music obsessive and (b) that I have written blogs on both compulsive hoarding and ‘collecting’ as an addiction‘ (including a separate blog on murderabilia). Today’s blog briefly looks at a really interesting 2008 paper I came across on ‘record collecting’ as an addiction written by Professor Kevin Moist in the journal Studies in Popular Culture. (Moist also has a new co-edited book – Contemporary Collecting: Objects, Practices, and the Fate of Things – that has just been published by Scarecrow Press).

According to research papers and books by Dr. Russell Belk, around one in three people in the United States collects something – yet one of the observations that Moist makes is that collectors (in general and not just relating to record collectors) are often portrayed negatively as obsessive, socially maladjusted oddballs in thrall to acquisitive drives”. I have to admit that those closest to me certainly see my passionate interest in collecting music by certain recording artists as “obsessive” (although arguably not “socially maladjusted”). I’ve also been described as “no different to a trainspotter” (but said in such a way that it obviously relates to something negative).

Research by Dr. Susan Pearce (published in her 1998 book Contemporary Collecting in Britain) shows that collectors as a group are “quite average, socially speaking”. Additionally, Dr. Belk claims that the image of a ‘collector’ acts as “an unwitting metaphor for our own fears of unbridled materialism in the marketplace”. Belk then goes on to say that his research has led him to the conclusion that collectors cherish things about objects “that few others appreciate” and are not necessarily materialistic in their motivations for collecting. Belk also talks about collecting behaviour being on a continuum of the ‘heroic passionate’ collector at one end of the spectrum and the ‘obsessive-compulsive type’ at the other with most collectors falling somewhere between the two. I briefly dealt with the motivations to collect things in my previous blog but in her book Museums, Objects, and Collections, Dr. Pearce argues collecting falls into three distinct (but sometimes overlapping) types. As Moist summarizes:

“One of these she calls ‘souvenirs’, items or objects that have significance primarily as reminders of an individual’s or group’s experiences. The second mode is what she calls ‘fetish objects’ (conflating the anthropological and psychological senses of the term), relating primarily to the personality of the collector; the collector’s own desires lead to the accumulation of objects that feed back into those desires, with the collection playing a central role in defining the personality of the collector, memorializing the development of a personal interest or passion. The third mode, ‘systematics’, has the broader goal of creating a set of objects that expresses some larger meaning. Systematic collecting involves a stronger element of consciously presenting an idea, seen from a particular point of view and expressed via the cultural world of objects”.

When it comes to record collecting, I appear to most fit the second (i.e., fetish) type. The artists that I collect are an extension of my own personality and say something about me. My tastes are diverse and eclectic (to say the least) and range from the obvious ‘classic’ artists (Beatles, David Bowie, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Lou Reed), the not so obvious (Adam Ant, The Smiths, Bauhaus, Heaven 17, Depeche Mode, Gary Numan, Divine Comedy), the arguably obscure (Art of Noise, John Foxx, Propaganda, David Sylvian, Nico) and the downright extreme (Throbbing Gristle, Velvet Underground). Arguably, most people’s conceptions of record collecting (if they are not collectors themselves) are likely to be based on media and cultural representations of such individuals (such as John Cusack and Jack Black in High Fidelity, or Steve Buscemi in Ghost World). I agree with Professor Moist who asserts:

“Most record collectors fit well within Belk’s definition, passionately acquiring sets of records both as objects and cultural experiences. As with most types of collecting, the ‘thrill of the chase’ is a major part of the experience…[However] today, with eBay and other online resources, the amount of time required for the hunt has been reduced, and collecting is also less of a face-to-face social activity since one can search in private rather than actually traveling to find records…Music writer Simon Reynolds notes that record collecting also ‘involves the accumulation of data as well as artifacts’, a factor that can be seen in magazines devoted to record collecting such as Goldmine and Record Collector, and that has only increased as collecting has gone online”.

The above paragraph could have been written about me. I am one of those record collectors that collect as much for the cultural experience as for the object itself. I have loads of mint condition singles and LPs that I haven’t even played (but listen to the music on my i-Pod). I have bought Record Collector magazine every month for over 30 years and have never missed an issue. Every month I buy a wide range of other music magazines including Mojo, Q, Uncut, Vive Le Rock, Classic Rock and Classic Pop (as well as the occasional issue of Rolling Stone, NME, The Wire, Future Music and Shindig). In short, almost a lot of my disposable income goes on buying music or reading music. My records, CDs and music magazines can be found in almost every room in my house. To me, my collection is priceless (and I mean that in an emotional sense rather than a financial one). I am an archivist of the artists I collect as much as a collector. Professor Moist comments that: “While such fanatical and obsessed collectors do exist…they are clearly outliers on the scale of collecting passion…For such people collecting is a real problem”. However, I am a true fanatic of music but don’t believe I am addicted (based on my own criteria). My love of music and collecting it adds to my life rather than takes away from it. As Moist also notes (and which I again wholeheartedly agree:

“Most record collectors collect as much for the content as for the object: one is far less likely to find a collector whose collecting criteria is ‘records with yellow labels’ than to find one whose focus is ‘west coast jazz’ or ‘pre-war blues’. Collectors might follow particular artists (Charlie Parker, the Sex Pistols), musical genres (reggae, soul, classical), records from certain cultural/geographic areas (New Orleans, South Africa), records from specific labels (Sun, Stax, Rough Trade), records for special types of use (sound effects, ‘library’ music), records from a historical era (the 1960s), records with covers by particular graphic artists, special editions of records (first/original pressings are again popular), particular types of records (45s, LPs), records that embody memory on a more personal scale (those played by a favorite local DJ, or listened to in one’s youth, etc.), and many more besides. For many collectors, records’ status as bearers of personal and/or collective meaning is most significant”.

Moist’s chapter also features a number of case studies of people that appear to be addicted to record collecting – an activity that completely takes over (and conflicts with) almost every area of their lives. Moist concludes:

“Is there something about recorded music that lends itself to this sort of collecting? It could be that records’ dual levels of significance – objects themselves, and materializations of sound – make such types of activity more likely, that the status and possibilities of the object itself provide for certain approaches to collecting it…more research is needed on other types of collecting before such conclusions can be reached, though certainly the era of mass production has seen popular collecting expand greatly, and the digital era should see even further changes”.

I (for one) would love to carry out research in the area of record collecting but I guess I would get little research funding to carry out such studies. To me, the psychology of record collecting is fascinating but I know only too well that most others I know simply cannot fathom what it is I love about music and collecting music.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Belk, R.W. (1995). Collecting as luxury consumption: Effects on individuals and households. Journal of Economic Psychology, 16(3), 477-490.

Belk, R.W. (2001). Collecting in a Consumer Society. New York: Routledge.

Moist, K. (2008). “To renew the Old World”: Record collecting as cultural production. Studies in Popular Culture, 31(1), 99-122.

Pearce, S. (1993). Museums, Objects, and Collections. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Pearce, S. (1998). Contemporary Collecting in Britain. London: Sage.

Reynolds, S. (2004). Lost in music: Obsessive music collecting. In E. Weisbard (Ed.), This Is Pop: In Search of the Elusive at Experience Music Project (pp.289-307). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

A noise that annoys: A brief look at exploding head syndrome

Over the past few years I have suffered occasional bouts of tinnitus and have to say that when it occurs it completely dominates all my thoughts and thinking (although I’ve been told by more than one person that my excessive i-Pod use is to blame and therefore somewhat self-inflicted medical condition). A condition that must be a hundred times worse is that of ‘exploding head syndrome’ (EHS). The condition was first reported by the Welsh psychiatrist Dr. Robert Armstrong-Jones almost 100 years ago in The Lancet (and described as “a snapping of the brain”). A much more recent detailed description of 50 EHS cases was reported by British neurologist Dr. John Pearce in a 1989 issue of the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery and Psychiatry (following an initial short report of 10 cases that Pearce published in a 1988 issue of The Lancet).

EHS is known to be a type of hypnagogic auditory hallucination where the person experiences a very sudden and brief loud (but usually painless) noise originating from inside their head for a fraction of a second. Some EHS sufferers also report that the loud noise may sometimes be accompanied by breathing irregularities and/or intense light flashes (so called ‘visual sleep starts’). Those who have experienced such loud noises have likened it not only to an explosion, but to a wide range of very loud noises. The 1989 paper by Dr. Pearce listed 50 patient descriptions that included gunshot, loud electrical buzzing, a loud Xmas cracker, thunderclap, a clash of cymbals, loud ringing, crashing waves, loud screaming and roaring, loud electrical static, and/or slamming car doors). There doesn’t appear to be any typical pattern among sufferers, although most EHS sufferers claim the number of attacks diminish over time following initial frequent occurrences. Some individuals experience it just once without any reoccurrence.

Any hypnagogic condition means by definition that it occurs around the onset of sleep (or the early stages of getting to sleep) and EHS is no different. (Hypnagogia refers to the state of being between awake and asleep, often called the ‘twilight of sleep’). Although the loud noise may be part of dreaming, many sufferers report that dreaming is not a necessary condition to induce the inner noise. Following an EHS attack (often experienced in the left side of the head), some individuals may experience fear and anxiety and/or heart palpitations. It is thought to be slightly less prevalent among men than women, and is more prevalent as people get older (i.e., there is much higher incidence in individuals aged over 50 years although there are reports among pre-pubescents).

Although there is no formal treatment for EHS, various therapies have been tried. Case reports have shown that some medicines appear to reduce EHS symptoms including clonezapam (reported in the journal Neurology [2008]), clomipramnine (reported in the journals Sleep [1991] and Cephalalgia [2008]), and nifedipine (reported in the journal Cephalalgia [2001]). Two cases were successfully treated using flunarizine (in the journal Cephalalgia [2008]). Other medications have been tried but EHS sufferers have not shown any improvement including doxepin, citalopram, trimipramine, and amitriptyline, valproic acid, amitriptyline, propranolol oxycodone, and gabapentin. The most recently published case study involving treatment of EHS that I am aware of was a short 2010 paper by Dr. Gaurang Palikh and Dr, Bradley Vaughn and published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. They described the case of a women with EHS who was successfully treated using pharmacotherapy (in this case, topiramate medication). The authors reported that:

“A 39-year-old female reported symptoms of a loud bang and buzzing noise at sleep onset for 3 years. She said that, if the sound was external, her ‘husband should be able to hear it downstairs when she was up in her bedroom. Associated with this noise, she experienced brief jerking movement of her head, leg, or arms at sleep onset on a daily basis. She noted these symptoms for years; because of the increase in intensity and frequency, she saw a neurologist. The patient had become anxious about these events, fearing that they were a hallmark of more serious medical issues. Her neurological exam, laboratory test results, and neuroimaging were normal. Because of the stereotypic nature of the events and the level of disturbance to the patient, she was admitted for continuous video EEG monitoring for 4 days. Coincidently, the patient’s neurologist prescribed topiramate 50 mg twice a day for migraine prophylaxis…Two months after admission, she reported improvement in the intensity of the noise. At a daily dose of topiramate 200 mg, the patient reported the bang had significantly improved, and now sounded like a low buzzing noise. The frequency of the events was unchanged, but the intensity of the events decreased to the point of being mildly noticeable. She had marked improvement in subjective ability to fall asleep and felt these events were no longer disruptive”.

It is not known why EHS occurs although there is some speculation that it is associated with the withdrawal from prescription drugs, extreme fatigue, and/or stress. There are also some reports that EHS attacks sometimes occur when individuals have out-of-body experiences. As a consequence, some EHS sufferers develop insomnia because of a fear about going to sleep or resting. Others experience a loss in appetite. The mechanism by which the loud noise is heard is also unknown although there are speculative reasons such as being due to minor seizures in the brain’s temporal lobe (the location of hearing’s nerve cells) or sudden movements in the middle ear. Some research has monitored EEG brain activity during actual EHS attacks that show atypical brain activity among some (but certainly not all) EHS sufferers. Although the condition appears to be very rare, it certainly exists and most people appear to get better over time (with or without treatment).

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Armstrong-Jones, R. (1920). Snapping of the brain. The Lancet, 196, 720.

Chakravarty, A. (2008). Exploding head syndrome: Report of two new cases. Cephalalgia, 28, 399-400.

Gordon, A.G. (1988). Exploding head (letter), The Lancet, 198, 625-626.

Jacome, D.E. (2001). Exploding head syndrome and idiopathic stabbing headache relieved by nifedipine. Cephalalgia, 21, 617-618

Palikh, G.M. & Vaughn, B.V. (2010). Topiramate responsive exploding head syndrome. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 6, 382-383.

Pearce, J.M. (1988). Exploding Head Syndrome. The Lancet, 332, 270-271.

Pearce, J.M. (1989), Clinical features of the exploding head syndrome. Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, 52, 907–910.

Sachs, C. & Svanborg, E. (1991), The exploding head syndrome: polysomnographic recordings and therapeutic suggestions. Sleep, 14, 263-266.

Salih, F., Kleingebiel, R., Zschenderlein, R., & Grosse P. (2008). Acoustic sleep starts with sleep onset insomnia related to a brainstem lesion. Neurology, 70, 1935-1936.

Jacome, D.E. (2001). Exploding head syndrome and idiopathic stabbing headache relieved by nifedipine. Cephalalgia, 21, 617-618.

The needle and the damage done: An overview of musomania

“Music acts on our emotions and feelings. Drugs act on our emotions and feelings. We generally recognise that the feelings created by drugs are not ‘real’. Does the same apply to music? Is music a drug?” (Philip Dorrell, 2005; author of ‘What is Music? Solving a Scientific Mystery’)

This opening quote from Philip Dorrell is something that I have pondered many times – especially because people that know me can vouch that I am a self-confessed music obsessive. Today’s blog is based on an article that I had published in this month’s issue of Record Collector magazine on music mania and addiction. Although most lists of manias include ‘musomania’ (i.e., an obsession with music), there is very little in the way of academic or clinical literature on the topic. Jillyn Smith in her 1989 book Senses and Sensibilities interviewed Michael Koss (at the time, the President of the Koss Stereo Headphone Corporation. He was quoted as saying:

“The excitement that people, especially teenagers, get from high-decibel music results from activation of the peripheral nervous system by low frequency sound waves beating against the body…people can get ‘high’ from this feeling, because it switches on the body’s fight or flight mechanism, bringing a rush of adrenalin (a reason for battle music)”

There are certainly anecdotal reports of people being obsessed and/or ‘addicted’ to music’. One notorious case, is a Swedish man in his forties (Roger Tullgren) who receives state benefits from the Employment Service because of his ‘addiction’ to heavy metal music. Tullgren (with the help of three occupational psychologists) campaigned for ten years to get his condition classed as a ‘handicap’ so that he would not be discriminated against. In 2006 he claimed to have attended almost 300 heavy metal gigs and constantly missed work as a consequence. He was then sacked from his job because of his continual inability to turn up for work. With the help of psychologists, his lifestyle was subsequently classed as a disability (which in turn meant he was entitled to wage supplements). He now works at a hotel washing up and has been given a special dispensation to listen to heavy metal while he works. Other Swedish psychologists have found the ruling strange. Quoted in a Swedish newspaper, The Local, one unnamed male psychologist was reported to have said:

“I think it’s extremely strange. Unless there is an underlying diagnosis it is absolutely unbelievable that the job centre would pay out. If somebody has a gambling addiction, we don’t send them down to the racetrack. We try to cure the addiction, not encourage it”.

Part of me can empathize with Tullgren as I too constantly play music while I am working, and I play my i-Pod whenever I am in transit. However, my love of music has never interfered with my job, and as far as I am concerned there are no negative detrimental effects as a consequence of my excessive listening to music. However, that doesn’t mean that some people may not be addicted to music. In an online essay, Philip Dorrell explored the question theoretically and noted:

“For drugs like heroin, the notion of addiction is relatively uncontroversial…For a not-quite-so-strong drug like cocaine, it becomes less clear as to where the boundary between regular use and addiction lies. Looking at the more popular alcohol, some people get addicted to it, and some don’t…There is the weaker notion of “psychological dependence”, which implies that you will miss not having something, but not to the extent that you would deem yourself to be suffering. I think that might be a fair description of many people’s relationship with music…So, is music a drug? The short answer is ‘yes, sort of’”.

For Dorrell, the long answer to the question of whether music is a drug is that (theoretically) music could be considered “similar in the strength and nature of its effects to a mild recreational drug” because (i) it generates ‘false’ feelings, (ii) the maximum level of effect is roughly equivalent to a couple of ‘standard’ alcoholic drinks, (iii) it is not strictly addictive, but may cause psychological dependence, and (iv) excessive consumption can cause some health problems.

I have operationally defined addictive behaviour as any behaviour that features what I believe are the six core components of addiction (i.e., salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict and relapse). I argue that any behaviour (e.g., excessive listening to music) that fulfils these six criteria can be operationally defined as an addiction. Theoretically, and in relation to “music addiction”, the six components would therefore be:

  • Salience – This occurs when music becomes the single most important activity in the person’s life and dominates their thinking (preoccupations and cognitive distortions), feelings (cravings) and behaviour (deterioration of socialised behaviour). For instance, even if the person is not actually listening to music they will be constantly thinking about the next time that they will be (i.e., a total preoccupation with music).
  • Mood modification – This refers to the subjective experiences that people report as a consequence of listening to music and can be seen as a coping strategy (i.e., they experience an arousing ‘buzz’ or a ‘high’ or paradoxically a tranquilizing feel of ‘escape’ or ‘numbing’).
  • Tolerance – This is the process whereby increasing amounts of listening to music are required to achieve the former mood modifying effects. This basically means that for someone engaged in listening to music, they gradually build up the amount of the time they spend listening to music every day.
  • Withdrawal symptoms – These are the unpleasant feeling states and/or physical effects (e.g., the shakes, moodiness, irritability, etc.) that occur when the person is unable to listen to music because they are without their i-Pod or have a painful ear infection.
  • Conflict – This refers to the conflicts between the person and those around them (interpersonal conflict), conflicts with other activities (work, social life, other hobbies and interests) or from within the individual themselves (intra-psychic conflict and/or subjective feelings of loss of control) that are concerned with spending too much time listening to music.
  • Relapse – This is the tendency for repeated reversions to earlier patterns of excessive music listening to recur and for even the most extreme patterns typical of the height of excessive music listening to be quickly restored after periods of control.

I have also argued that the temporal dimension and context of the addiction needs to be taken into account. With regard to the temporal dimension, most people can think of periods in their lives when listening to music has taken over for a short time (e.g., listening to music 12- to 16-hour days for a month). This alone does not mean that such people are addicted to listening to music. To be genuinely addictive, the activity must be something that has been sustained and have been going on over a long period of time. The difference between a healthy excessive enthusiasm and an addiction is that healthy excessive enthusiams add to life whereas addiction takes away from it.

Most recently, a 2011 study published in Nature Neuroscience reported that on a neurochemical level, the pleasurable experience of listening to music releases the neurotransmitter dopamine that is important for the pleasures associated with rewards such as food, psychoactive drugs and money. This led to many headlines in newspapers along the lines of ‘people who say that they are “addicted” to music are not lying’.

In their study, Dr. Valorie Salimpoor and her colleagues (at Montreal’s McGill University in Canada), measured dopamine release in response to music that elicited “chills”. Participants in their experiments were asked to listen to their favourite songs while their brains were being observed using a neuro-imaging technique known as Position Emission Tomography (PET). They found that changes in heart rate, skin conductance, temperature, and breathing, were correlated with how pleasurable the music was. Furthermore, their findings suggested that dopamine release was greater for pleasurable music when compared to “neutral” music. In newspaper interviews, Dr Salimpoor said:

“Dopamine is important because it makes us want to repeat behaviors. It’s the reason why addictions exist, whether positive or negative. In this case, the euphoric ‘highs’ from music are neurochemically reinforced by our brain so we keep coming back to them. It’s like drugs. It works on the same system as cocaine. It’s working on the same systems of addiction, which explain why we’re willing to spend so much time and money trying to achieve musical experiences. This is the first time that we’ve found dopamine release in response to an aesthetic stimulus. Aesthetic stimuli are largely cognitive in nature. It’s not the music that is giving us the ‘rush.’ It’s the way we’re interpreting it”.

The team also reported that just the anticipation of pleasurable music led to increased dopamine release. Therefore, this helps explain why individuals (like myself) continually repeat songs or albums all the time as we want to re-experience those sensations repeatedly.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Dorrell, P. (2005). Is music a drug? 1729.com, July 3. Located at: http://www.1729.com/blog/IsMusicADrug.html

Dorrell, P. (2005).What is Music? Solving a Scientific Mystery. Located at: http://whatismusic.info/.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Music addiction. Record Collector, 406 (October), p.20.

The Local (2007). Man gets sick benefits for heavy metal addiction. June 19. Located at: http://www.thelocal.se/7650/20070619/

Morrison, E. (2011). Researchers show why music is so addictive. Medhill Reports, January 21. Located at: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=176870

Salimpoor, V.N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K. Dagher, A. & Zatorre, R.J. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nature Neuroscience 14, 257–262.

Smith, J. (1989). Senses and Sensibilities. New York: Wiley.