Musician's head injury triggered rare synesthesia, causing him to 'see' music

an older man with brown skin and a salt-and-peppered mustache reclines on a sofa with overear headphones on. His hands are behind his head, as if he's resting, and he's looking into the distance
A musician started "seeing" music after a brain injury. (This is a stock photo and does not depict the person described in the story below.) (Image credit: katleho Seisa via Getty Images)

After a musician suffered a head injury in a motorcycle accident, something unusual happened: He began to "see" music and developed heightened creativity for a few months, according to a new report of the case.

The man's traumatic brain injury (TBI) apparently caused him to develop synesthesia, a rare neurological condition that results in a "mixing" of the senses, his doctors wrote in the report. For example, some people with synesthesia see certain colors or shapes when they hear particular sounds. 

In the man's case, hearing music caused him to see the musical notes in his mind as they would be written on sheet music, which he had never experienced before. He also gained the ability to name the chords within a song just from listening alone. In addition, he reported that his creativity went into overdrive and he felt compelled to compose music late into the night, according to the report, which was published May 7 in the journal Neurocase.

Cases of people developing either synesthesia or heightened creativity following a brain injury have been reported before, but the new case is one of the first to report both phenomena in a single patient, the case report authors wrote. This suggests that similar neurological pathways may be involved in the two conditions, they added.

Related: 10 bizarre medical case reports from 2022 

"While TBI is typically associated with 'negative' outcomes, in which the patients' function is impaired, this was a unique case highlighting a 'positive' outcome of enhanced creativity and synesthesia," study co-author Dr. Lealani Mae Acosta, an associate professor of neurology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told Live Science in an email. 

Still, the authors cautioned that they don't know for certain if the man's brain injury directly caused his synesthesia and heightened creativity and that, if it did, this outcome is likely very rare. 

The 66-year-old man was teaching music following a career as a musical performer and composer, the report said. In 2021, he was in a motorcycle crash that threw him 30 feet (9 meters) from his vehicle. Afterward, he was confused and couldn't remember the crash. He was taken to the hospital, where a CT scan showed that blood had collected on the surface of his brain — a condition known as a subdural hematoma. The bleeding wasn't severe enough to require surgical treatment, and he was discharged from the hospital after three days.

The man experienced cognitive problems, particularly memory issues, as a result of his TBI, in addition to "seeing" notes when he heard live or recorded music. An online questionnaire to assess synesthesia, known as the Synesthesia Battery, confirmed that the patient indeed had vision-sound synesthesia, in which sounds trigger visual imagery, the authors wrote.

After the crash, the man reported experiencing bursts of creativity mostly between midnight and 4:00 a.m., during which he would compose. He told doctors "I was writing constantly [. . .]. It was unacceptable for me not to." These episodes lasted about four months, in which time the patient composed an ensemble piece that he later forgot he'd composed, the report said. When he and his wife listened to the piece, they both described it as "interesting and bizarre." 

The man's unique symptoms faded as he recovered from his TBI. Three months after his accident, he also reported that his cognitive difficulties had mostly gone away, the report said.

Synesthesia is uncommon, occurring in about 1 in 2,000 people. Most people who have the condition are born with it, but there have been reports of people who acquired synesthesia after a brain injury. Similarly, there have been cases of people becoming more creative after experiencing brain damage.

The case report authors noted that they know of just one other case of synesthesia and heightened creativity occurring together following brain injury, in which a woman felt compelled to paint after a stroke and experienced changes in her neuropathic pain (pain arising from damaged nerves) depending on the colors she used, the report authors wrote.

The neural causes of creativity and synesthesia aren't fully understood, but both may involve novel connections in the brain, the new report said.

One hypothesis is that creative thinking is tied to "cognitive disinhibition," or the idea that people have fewer mental filters to block out irrelevant information and this allows them to make novel associations, according to Psych Central. In people with synesthesia, it's possible that cognitive "filters" that would normally prevent a stimulus — a sound — from triggering an unrelated sensation — seeing colors — don't work as well. The patient in this case may have experienced a "temporary disinhibition syndrome" as a result of his TBI, which drove both his creativity and synesthesia, the report suggests.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.