James Bond theme music sends stroke victim into ecstasy

A Canadian stroke victim has developed a rare neurological condition nine months into his recovery that leaves him disgusted by words printed in a certain shade of blue and lifted to ecstasy by the sound of music by brass instruments.

Toronto man's rare brain disorder leaves him thrilled by brass, disgusted by blue

Blended senses

The National

8 years ago
A Toronto man has developed synesthesia, a rare sense-blending condition, after suffering brain damage from a stroke 2:29

A stroke patient has developed a rare neurological condition nine months into his recovery that leaves him disgusted by words printed in a certain shade of blue and lifted to ecstasy by the sound of music by brass instruments, a Toronto neuroscientist says.

The case, described in today's issue of the medical journal Neurology, involves an anonymous 45-year-old patient in Toronto who was initially frightened by the conflicting senses he began to experience. It is only the second known case of a patient developing the neurological condition after a brain injury.

High-pitched brass instruments like those played in the theme from James Bond movies elicited feelings of ecstasy and created light blue flashes in his peripheral vision. They also caused large parts of his brain to light up in tests, the report says.

"I heard it one day some time after the stroke and I went for a ride that was, it was cosmic in its voyage and it was wonderful," the patient said in a hospital YouTube interview.

In contrast, when the euphonium was played in the study, the man said the response was cut off.

What is synesthesia?

Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which one sense, such as hearing, is simultaneously perceived by one or more additional senses, such as sight.

The word synesthesia comes from two Greek words, syn (together) and aisthesis (perception); literally, "joined perception." People who report such experiences are known as synesthetes.

"You are presented with a stimuli and you experience a totally different type of sensation as the result of seeing that stimuli," said Tom Schweizer, director of the Neuroscience Research Program at St. Michael’s Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute.

Source: St. Michael's Hospital

"It's like you took a pair of scissors and cut it. But when the [Bond] music starts again, I can hop back on."

While the neurological condition called synesthesia is rare, most acquire it at birth. People who have had it include author Vladimir Nabokov, composer Franz Liszt, painter Vasily Kandinsky, and singer-songwriter Billy Joel.

Dr. Tom Schweizer, a neuroscientist, examined the patient with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine and compared his responses to those of six men of similar age (45) and education (18 years) as each listened to the James Bond Theme and a euphonium solo.

"The unique aspect here is that the brain was desperately trying to fix itself, but by doing that it crossed some wires that normally wouldn't be communicating," Schweizer said. "Thus arose his synesthesia."

The areas of the brain that lit up when he heard the James Bond Theme are implicated in spatial navigation, memory, visual and auditory processing, Schweizer said. In the controls, only areas of the auditory cortex were activated. 

High-pitched brass instruments like the theme from James Bond movies elicited feelings of ecstasy in a patient. (Francois Duhamel/Sony Pictures/Associated Press)

The patient and control subjects viewed 10-second blocks of words in different colours.

The patient's responses were:

  • Black: no emotional response.
  • Yellow: mild disgust.
  • Blue: intense disgust. 

The patient's stroke occurred in the thalamus, the brain's central relay station.

After the stroke, the patient initially had restricted use of his arm. "He was very lucky to survive the stroke in that area of the brain,"  Schweizer said.

The only other reported case after a brain injury also affected the same area of the brain, the researchers said. That patient reported a tingling sensation elicited by sounds, but without an emotional component.

Other people with the condition who are are shown the word "cat" in green, for example, often feel a sense of "wrongness" if "cat" is shown in a different colour, the authors said.

"This feeling, although technically an emotion, is vastly different from the intense emotional experiences felt by our patient," Schweizer and his co-authors concluded.

Their paper is titled "From the Thalamus with Love: A Rare Window into the Locus of Emotional Synesthesia."

With files from CBC's Stephanie Matteis