For the past two and a half years, my brain has been exploding one or two times a month. I’ve never been officially diagnosed, but I’m reasonably sure I have what’s called Exploding Head Syndrome, which is exactly what it sounds like: a hellish, paralytic, aural waking nightmare. If you google it, you’ll discover that Exploding Head Syndrome (bloodlessly abbreviated to EHS) is a type of sleep disorder called a parasomnia, which occurs at the edge of sleep and wakefulness and interferes with the commencement of REM cycles. The conclusion of several scientific studies is that this is a syndrome of unknown etiology, or, in layman’s terms, “We don’t know what’s going on with this.” What somnologists do know is that during the twilight stages of sleep, just before they nod off, people with EHS will begin to aurally hallucinate loud, violent, terrifying noises like gunshots, explosions, and metallic grinding. Essentially, the brain is so fatigued and in such a hurry to leave work for the day that it forgets to lock up shop and occasionally lets in insane noise demons. For me, the demons started coming in when I began writing regularly about music.
Like a lot of writing gigs, my job involves late hours, lots of stress, and little sleep. But I got into writing about music because I’m a dopamine addict, always trying to test the different things sound can do for (and to) my brain. You know how if you’ve never heard a song before, of if you hear a foreign noise in the context of music, you might wince, become averse to it, and turn it off? Or that awkward moment when a friend puts a song on your car radio that you’ve never heard and you have to feign enthusiasm so as not to try to kill his buzz? Jonah Lehrer (I know, I know) mentions in his book Proust Was a Neuroscientist that there are specific neurons in your brain stem that release dopamine when you hear unfamiliar sounds. Noises that are too strange flood your brain with too much dopamine, overloading your senses and making you confused and unsettled. This happens a lot in the day-to-day life of a music editor, but a couple years ago, at 2:30 AM on a hot July night, something happened that fundamentally changed how I connected to unfamiliar music.
I was staying up late after working at my two day jobs and writing in a hazy, half-conscious state, and I remember feeling my scalp fall asleep—a weird tingling sensation that I still get when I’m really tired. Then the sounds of live-wire electrical pulses started shooting through my skull at a deafening volume. This wasn’t the volume of, say, a My Bloody Valentine show, which is noise you experience as vibrations traveling through the air and hitting your eardrum—this was sound as an internal, hallucinatory specter that bypasses the normal channels and is all of a sudden inside your brain, debilitating and all-consuming. There was no physical pain associated with it, just a knife-like current of noise strafing back and forth across the interior of my head for five minutes straight. I tried to wrest myself out of it, but each time I closed my eyes it would return, like a table saw’s shrill whine combined with a Doppler effect, all underscored with this Lynchian dread that I’m not supposed to be hearing this—it was like the trumpet blast that toppled the walls of Jericho, a sound that no human should be able to hear without paying a hefty emotional and spiritual tax.
And then it stopped. End of transmission. The gate closed. I was sweating in bed, in shock. I was scared I had a seizure, or a stroke, or that there was an actual space war happening just outside my apartment. After some frantic internet searches to make sure I didn’t need to go to the hospital, I discovered that EHS is comparatively a pretty tame sleep disorder. There’s some cause for concern, but it’s nothing compared to conditions like narcolepsy, sleep paralysis, somnoiliquy, sleepeating, homicidal sleepwalking, and sleepsex. EHS is uncommon, benign, and occurs so rarely that people with real sleep disorders like Mike Birbiglia or Lady Macbeth would just roll their eyes at me. In reality, my Terrible Affliction ranks just above restless leg syndrome, snoring, and someone hogging the covers. So mostly I just keep quiet about it and let it occur, on and off, with varying degrees of horror and panic.
After a year or so of semi-frequent incidents, this strange connection started to form between my EHS and the kind of music I gravitated toward. I remember hearing Pan Sonic’s “VoltosBolt” for the first time and thinking, “Hey! That’s what plays inside of my skull every month!” This Finnish electronic noise duo started to contextualize my internal aural hallucinations, and strangely enough, vice versa. From there, I went on to Throbbing Gristle’s 1981 release, Rafters/Psychic Rally. Before EHS, I would have never given this album the time of day, but 20 seconds into “Womb of Corruption” I felt like I was born anew in all the chaos of that track—that this was made for me and me alone. The perfect amount of dopamine was being triggered, and it was thanks, at least in part, to my head explosions.
That led me to other bands that made those same kinds of industrial compositions like Wolf Eyes, Merzbow, and Oren Ambarchi. All these noise artists and tabletop guitar-looping guys triggered a sense-memory recall that spiked all my pleasure receptors. I can still feel the blood gathering around my head when I turn on the swirling agitations of Kevin Drumm. What would otherwise be abrasive, disturbing listening experiences for me started to connect to something personal; I felt emotionally connected to this alien music because it bore such a close relationship to these alien hallucinations.
I know there’s a lot of self-help books about how negative emotional states like fear, depression, anger, and mania can be alleviated by art. How listening to Sigur Rós can calm your anxiety, or putting Pantera on your headphones can get all that aggression out of you as you walk down the street. For me, the opposite is also true: Exploding Head Syndrome personalized experimental noise music and allowed me to enjoy it. Now I have an understanding of a whole subgenre of music that I would otherwise be totally averse to. Art can help salve your Terrible Afflictions, but give your Terrible Afflictions some agency, and they can open you to art. There’s a lot of music out there waiting to be tamed by whatever fucked-up thing goes on in your head in the twilight stages of sleep.
I should probably leave it at that, because it’s 2:46 AM right now and I am exhausted.
Jeremy D. Larson is the managing editor at Consequence of Sound. His work has appeared in the Classical, Paste, Time, and on his Twitter.