Seizures caused by music

For several years, Stacey Gayle had seizures whenever she heard certain songs. Sean Paul's "Temperature" was a sure bet to send her into convulsions. Gayle suffered from musicogenic epilepsy, seizures caused by music. According to Oliver Sacks's Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, the condition was first described in 1937. A total of just 150 cases of musicogenic epilepsy have ever been reported. Once Gayle was properly diagnosed, she had a small portion of her brain removed to stop the song-induced fits. It worked. Scientific American has her story. From the article:
At first, the seizures seemed to occur randomly. In the spring of 2006, however, she noticed a pattern. At the time, Sean Paul's "Temperature" was sitting at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, continually being played on urban radio stations. It was playing at nearly every barbecue and party she went to. That was a problem: "Every time it would go on, I would pass out and go into a seizure," she recalls.

All it seemed to take was a few seconds of the song to send Gayle to the floor. "That's the last thing you would think," she explains, "but I did it at home one time and it happened again."
Link to Scientific American, Link to buy Musicophilia

Previously on BB:
• Oliver Sacks on music and amnesia Link
• Oliver Sacks explains how your brain does music Link


  1. Musicophilia is a very interesting read.

    Highly recommended, especially if you are into music and/or the brain.

  2. On the one hand, very interesting.

    On the other hand: She purposefully had part of her brain removed in order to tolerate bad Top 40.


  3. On the one hand, very interesting.

    On the other hand: She purposefully had part of her brain removed in order to tolerate bad Top 40.


  4. With medication having been an unequivocal failure, her doctors were wondering if they could do anything other than keep music away from her—an unlikely proposition.

    Umm, earplugs?

    I mean, if I found myself unable to go to work because of the noise-issue, or crying outside a mall because I couldn’t go inside for fear of seizuring due to the muzak, I would take steps to not hear anything, not as a fix-all, but as a means to get through the day, til I found a better solution.

    I’m not saying she should just buck-up or anything, just that there was an obvious temporary solution to part of the issue, that didn’t seem to have been tried.

  5. Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Chapter a Day” program just finished a reading of “Musicophilia” last week. Some of the programs are probably still available at

    I’m pretty sure they abridge the books they read (I really don’t see how you can fit a chapter into a half hour otherwise) but you can’t argue with free. And the source text was great, I learned a fantastic number of fantastic things from it. (As I often do whenever I find something that Dr. Sacks has had a hand in…he’s often on “Radio Lab” too, ferinstance.)

  6. @ #6: Unless she wanted to live as a deaf person for the rest of her life, ear plugs most likely wouldn’t be an effective solution.

    The problem with drowning out background music is that it tends to be everywhere and it’s often not in our control. For example, if she were to be shopping in a mall which may end up playing that song, should she wear her ear plugs everywhere? If she did, how would she buy goods while she was there or otherwise converse with those around her? It may be possible to pretend to be deaf, but any storeowner who realized she was wearing earplugs would likely be offended very quickly; it would be no different to them than a customer who can’t hear because they were listening to their iPod (a common aggrevation).

    Given the rather immediate effect of the song on her, any action she took to prevent it would have to be very reliable. For ear plugs, that would mean enough sound dampening that she couldn’t so much as make out the beat (likely what caused her seizures) and she would have to wear them at all times, leaving her essentially deaf. Deaf or the possibility of a seizure? Hard choice to make.

    Assuming that the procedure had very good odds of success (or atleast of not causing damage), I don’t blame her for taking it.

  7. What, no links to the offending song? Bad internet!

    Holy Jumping Jackrabbits!! I think I just had a seizure myself. I’d forgotten how atrocious that song actually is. I would have preferred to keep it that way. ;)

  8. You also have to consider that though the initial trigger was that particular song it could have been a combination of notes or tones that caused the seizure. Those notes or tones could have been reflected in other songs, television shows, etc. It could have plauged her for her whole life.

  9. RevEng,

    It’s not a choice between the procedure and earplugs, you made that up. It was a choice between finding solutions to ease her daily suffering or having to stay indoors. And I never said “an effective solution”, I said “as a means to get through the day”, because otherwise she was house-bound, as the procedure wasn’t an option for her.

    She couldn’t work at all, because she couldn’t take the subway. Earplugs on the journey to work seems a pretty reasonable compromise if it means you can eat and pay rent. I’m not condemming her to a life of silence, I’m suggesting ways she could function.

    And your shopping example is half right, but she could have the plugs in for the entire time *until she needed to communicate with someone*. So she could prevent the chance hearing of the wrong song, all day, and then risk it for the 2 minute exchange while she buys something. Seems better than not shopping ever again.

    Thankfully she lives in a time that we have a permanent solution, and she met the person who could provide it.

  10. Reminds me of a car trip my family made back from Florida to Virginia over Christmas break in 1974. My 10-year-old sister was very susceptible to motion sickness, and before long had thrown up. As it happened, the Carpenters’ cover of “Please Mr. Postman” happened to be on the radio at the time — as it was the second time she became carsick a short while later. By the time we finally reached Virginia, the song itself had become enough to trigger my sister’s vomiting, with my mother playing a “Fear Factor” version of “Name That Tune,” frantically punching buttons on the radio as soon as she heard the first few notes beginning to play. Since the song was on its way to #1, there were times she’d hear, “And here’s something new from the Carpenters” and punch a button — only to land in the middle of another station’s playing of it, followed immediately by projectile vomiting.

  11. During my work as a brain injury case manager, I met a guy who would seize every time he heard a certain frequency–and it just happened to be the default ring on a number of Nokia phones. He would fly into swearing range when he heard a phone ring, but just as quickly the seizure loop would kick in and stun him quiet.

  12. The article obviously doesn’t say, but it’s entirely possible she tried earplugs and they didn’t help (or didn’t help enough). Earplugs really aren’t very good for blocking out loud, variable sound.

  13. Having seen a feature on Stacey Gayle and her unusual problem on TV (nightline? who knows…), the problem indeed got much larger than “Temperature” (add me to the list of those who don’t blame her seizing out on that one) to virtually any music/rhythm. Unless she wanted to stay indoors with no radio or TV, never take public transport, never shop, and insist on a music-free workspace… the surgery makes sense.

    But what I really want to do is thank Mazoola for this morning’s coffee-spewing. Definitely worth it.

  14. Different people have seizures for all sorts of different reasons. I’ve had about 2 grand-mal seizures a year for about 9 years now, most of which have occurred while playing strategy games. Most recently it was Sins of the Solar Empire, but past instances include Alpha Centauri, Stronghold, and Civilization 3. I can’t quite describe it, but it seems like theres a particular flavor of concentration that makes me vulnerable.

  15. Musicophilia is a fascinating book – the only problem with it is there’s another bizarre malady described every three pages or so, almost all of them nightmarish to anyone who enjoys music…

  16. This phenom is more common than you think.
    I see girls going into seizures on the dance floor all the time.

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