Tinnitus and Synesthesia?

At the end of 2017 Dr Lisa DeBruine, from the Institute of Neuroscience & Psychology at the University of Glasgow, shared the GIF below with her followers on Twiiter, and ask them to describe whether they experienced any auditory sensations while watching it. 

Many answered to hear a sound accompanying the animation, and most of them said they could hear a thudding sound. 

One person who suffers from tinnitus replied: "I hear a vibrating thudding sound, and it also cuts out my tinnitus during the camera shake." 

Do you experience something like that with this well-known GIF, dubbed an "optical illusion for the ears"?


How my Tinnitus sounds

STABLE SOUNDS (unchanged)

* Constants (uninterrupted)

- white noise
- pink Noise
- wind
- running water (fountain)
- waterfall
- whistle
- sound of one voice (human)
- murmur of several people
- burning grass
- engine or electric generator
- chainsaw
- vaccum cleaner
- high pitched mosquito hum
- low pitched mosquito hum
- chimes (bells)
- car horn (low pitched)
- muted trumpet
- synthesizer (keyboard)
- cello
- high pitched violin (always present, even now)
- plane engine – take off (high pitched sound / always present, even
  until now)

* Intermittents

- phone line tone
- human voice (women)
- elephant trumpeting (roaring)
- electric guitar (strums)
- morse code sound (low pitched)

CHANGING SOUNDS (like melodies)

* Constants (without interruption)

- harmonica (musical instr.) and melodica (pianohorn, a kind of musical instr.)

* Intermittents

- whistle / ocarina
- bells
- whistle plus bells
- wind
- male or female voice
- vocalizations of two notes
- ambulance siren
- melodica (pianohorn)
- trumpet
- muted trumpet
- sax
- sax plus trumpet
- flute
- piccolo (high pitched flute)
- organ
- electric guitar
- piano
- violin
- cello
- synthesizer


My early reconciliation with Tinnitus: how I got to live with it without suffering

For too long I have delayed writing about how tinnitus is no longer a problem for me in spite of my continuing to perceive it intensely. This delay has not been due to lack of time or interest on my part, but has been due primarily to the difficulty of describing my experience without sounding simplistic or even offensive to those who still suffer from its presence.I have finally decided to do it because l now think that despite that risk, l should share my experience with as many people as possible, especially those who are living in torment and are seeking an end to their suffering.I therefore hope that this post will be understood in its proper spirit and l also hope that more than one person will benefit from it.I will describe my case as clearly and concisely as possible below:

I am a musician specializing first in jazz studies and later in the musical traditions of the East, encompassing Asia, North Africa and Eastern Europe.After an acoustic accident in 1992 during a recording session, hyperacusis and tinnitus first appeared at a moderate level.However in 2006 due to several events all associated with loud noise, the hyperacusis and tinnitus intensified so much that my life became a living hell.

In late 2006, because of extreme sensitivity and highly intense tinnitus, l had to start a period of voluntary confinement.As the days passed the tinnitus sounds diversified and l perceived more and more sounds each day (see list here). It was a terrifying experience, not only because of the sounds themselves but also because l didn't know where they came from and if they were real or a product of my imagination.I had many days of despair and even had thoughts of suicide.It was not until several weeks later, thanks to some articles l located and read, that l realized that all these sounds l was hearing were characteristic of tinnitus and that l was not crazy.One aspect that l finally understood was that tinnitus represented the sound of the neuronal activity of the brain, thus being one of the many sounds produced by the body, and that for some reason certain people are able to perceive it with greater intensity. Several experiments that were performed in an anechoic chamber (having soundproof walls made of a substance which does not reflect sound waves) show that even people without hearing problems are able to perceive the sounds that we know as tinnitus if they remain in that silent environment for a few minutes.Thus tinnitus is a physiological sound originating in our own brain.You can read about the classic experiment conducted by Heller and Bergmann on the matter, and find out what they said in regard to tinnitus.

Knowing this gave me some peace and serenity but it did not mean in any way that the disturbance these sounds caused me disappeared, especially having read that there is no cure for this auditory phenomenon.

After a few more weeks, by which time it was already 2007, l began to realize that the pitch of many of the sounds l heard was not stable, but varied as when a musical instrument moves from one note to another.This gave me the idea of notating the sounds l heard on a music staff to see how they behaved and what patterns they followed.Starting this process in April 2007 led me to unravel the musicality in tinnitus.

What followed was something completely opposite to everything l had imagined some months before.Instead of wanting to forget tinnitus, to make it disappear in some way by distraction or perhaps by taking some form of medication, what l did was to throw myself at it, to begin to listen to it at every available moment and to try to capture and notate every tiny detail and any new element that appeared no matter what time of day it appeared, during the day, at dawn or at night.Much of what l heard and wrote down were sounds that resembled musical phrases, but even those which were continuous sounds acquired a musical function within the whole.

In the beginning all the sounds l was notating had a markedly sad or gloomy character. They were quite strange and some were even sinister.But almost at the end of April something unexpected happened:l woke up one morning hearing a happy tune full of vitality and hope which made me feel a great joy and an inexplicable happiness.For me it was like a sign, an omen, that something good was coming.At that time l accepted it as a supernatural experience, as a very subtle, brief, ecstatic experience.

My desire to transcribe the tinnitus sounds into musical notation continued with even more enthusiasm after this incident.Between April 2007 and May 2008 l completed more than 100 transcriptions. Below you can listen to a simulation of the sound of one of the early transcriptions (the volume is quite low and involves no risk to the listener):

(it is a recurring arpeggiated sound resembling a bell which l heard in my right ear) 

By that time, May 2008, l had noticed that more of the tinnitus sounds were gradually disappearing, and that at the same time, l was experiencing some relief from the hyperacusis.Currently l am still making transcriptions, but less frequently than before , when l notice a sound or pattern which is different from those heard previously.

Thanks to my very deliberate approach to the sounds of the tinnitus, l came to regard it as something personal and very interrelated with myself as if it were an intrinsic part of me.I got so used to its presence that at night l enjoyed listening to it, trying to identify to which of the transcriptions it corresponded, for example to N° 12 or to N° 6 etc., and if l heard a new sound l immediately wrote it down.After going to bed at night l frequently began making rhythms with my fingers around the tinnitus sounds, and sometimes l fell asleep listening to them.

Currently there are times when the tinnitus becomes very intense, usually after exposure to loud noise, and then some which had apparently disappeared reappear, for example this one (the volume is quite low and involves no risk to the listener):

(This example is typical of the more complex tinnitus sounds which have several melodies playing simultaneously. Most of these melodies are located in my right ear -with sounds resembling organ, melodica and cello-, however there is also a constant sound resembling a plane engine during takeoff which is present in both ears, but more intensely and noticeably in my left ear. To hear other examples of my musical tinnitus click here)

Because this increase in tinnitus intensity is most noticeable at night, what l continue to do is to concentrate on it and try to distinguish any new sounds from those that l have heard before. Then l allow myself to flow with it until l either fall asleep or my attention is diverted to another matter. 

From this experience l consider it important to emphasize here that many tinnitus sounds which may seem like constant unchanging noise do in fact change at some point, and in doing so, draw a melodic and/or a rhythmic sequence thus acquiring a noticeable musical form. If tinnitus is only a constant high pitched tone (or a mix of tones) without a clear pitch, and/or without any rhythmic pattern, I consider that in those cases it could be also treated as a musical sound, or at least it could be framed within a musical context and thus be considered as an essential musical ingredient which enhances the perception of the other musical sounds in the manner of stochastic resonance*, so the noise itself can be conceived as a musical element. In the case of a pulsatile tinnitus, I think that it is just the fact that the tinnitus is a rhythmical phenomenon what makes it a kind of musical event.

So far so good, but then one might ask what is the benefit of perceiving tinnitus as music? Then l would reply that to perceive it as music facilitates its acceptance and allows us to free ourselves of the negative associations it might have had for us. One might also wonder, assuming that one could perceive tinnitus as music, what would be the benefit if its intensity was still disturbing? Then l would say once again that it depends on how one relates to the sound, whether one considers it to be something weird, dangerous and foreign to oneself, or as something that is part of one's essence as a living being. 

It is expected for example that a person would be very annoyed by a noise coming from the house of a neighbor with whom that person does not have a good relationship, while the same noise coming from the house of a neighbor with whom that person has a good relationship would be perfectly tolerable. 

The effect of a particular sound depends greatly on how we relate to it. This is something that many tinnitus specialists have also claimed and continue to claim. They have discovered that, not always it is the intensity of tinnitus which disturbs people, but it's meaning. Many of us already know that, but it is sometimes very difficult to consider that possibility in our own particular case. 

Considering all that l have described in this post, l would say that instead of rejecting tinnitus, it is better and more useful to accept it, to pay attention to it, to try to get to know it and to become familiar with it. This acceptance is neither a kind of resignation nor even habituation. Accepting the tinnitus as something natural and as something that belongs to our own body can definitely change the meaning that it has for us. In the beginning you may feel fear about paying more attention to it because you might expect that by doing this, despair and disturbance would increase even more, however l have seen that eventually the opposite occurs. 

Besides, there are people who have already commented about their own experience through groups or pages on Facebook, and they describe how they have come to accept their tinnitus, no longer seeing it as an enemy. Some have even used meditation as a method of desensitizing themselves to its presence. 

I would add two things to these experiences: 

Firstly, what has already been highlighted above, which is to consider the musical aspect of the tinnitus sound. This offers a very fast and effective way to connect with it because most people love music and are sensitive to it in many different ways. In order to recognize the music within the tinnitus and to change our attitude to it, it is not necessary to be a musician or to know how to put it on a musical staff. It is sufficient to identify by ear the different musical characteristics such as melody, rhythm and timbre. Discovering the music within the tinnitus becomes a great facilitator. 

Secondly, this method of approach does not require any prior special training or timing. It can be made at any stage, as it was in my case. 

Having addressed tinnitus that way, having understood and accepted it as it is, means that l no longer wait for or look for its disappearance, because l know it must be there and will always be there whether or not l consciously perceive it. 

This position may be questionable or even controversial because it does not imply a cure for tinnitus, but instead it is offering us a different perspective for dealing with the sound (or sounds) of tinnitus, a perspective that can lead us from an insanely destabilizing situation to something totally opposite, that of an enormously reassuring and peace providing experience. 

Of course that does not prevent us from trying to avoid those factors which may unnecessarily increase tinnitus intensity such as noise and ototoxic drugs. In my case l have had to keep this in mind always, constantly thinking of what factors might negatively affect my hyperacusis but not my tinnitus. 

As could perhaps be expected, living with this musical tinnitus soon led me to ask myself several questions. The discovery of the musical elements present in it soon raised in me a strong desire to know why it had manifested itself in that musical way and to wonder what could be its meaning. Then l began a long process of research through different fields to look for answers and explanations. I sensed that l would have to look beyond the fields of medicine and music as it could involve elements which could be explained by other fields such as physics, philosophy and even mysticism. It took me a long time to reach clear conclusions, and only by mid-2013 l was able to develop an integrative interpretation of what I experienced with tinnitus. 

Then, from that year, l began working on a book to capture my experience with tinnitus and in it l have also noted down what l have concluded as a result of my research into other disciplines in the hope that this would widen the scope of all aspects involved as well as adding support for my ideas. 

I wish to mention here two conclusions drawn from my book which are extremely important to me: Firstly, it is not a coincidence that tinnitus can manifest itself in a musical way, and secondly, it is neither unexpected nor inexplicable that in a given moment of time l experienced such a sudden and profound joy from listening to it. 

To explain and justify both these things here could be very longwinded for the reader and also somewhat limiting for me given the blog format, so, for a fuller insight, l recommend reading my book**. 

But as a final reflection l wish to remind you that, as is well known, music is both a communicator and a transforming agent, and so, if it present in tinnitus, then this auditory phenomenon becomes a bearer of those functions and could be exploited when conceived as such. I no longer feel that l am an unhappy person with limitations due to the presence of tinnitus but rather l feel fortunate and privileged to be able to access this unique sound experience. 

I accept that this idea might be far-fetched, laughable or even offensive to some people, however, even though it is only a personal interpretation and perspective, it will always have true value for me as long as l have no evidence to the contrary. It is precisely that value which has allowed me to strengthen and complete my reconciliation with tinnitus, my musical tinnitus, and it is also what encouraged me to share it in this blog in the hope that it could be useful to someone else. 

* Stochastic resonance is a phenomenon by which the presence of a certain noise, even at a low volume, can cause other sounds to be amplified and so become more noticeable.

** The book, which is written in Spanish, is already available in a digital version from Amazon.To read an excerpt, click here.

To read the original post in spanish click here.

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