Music was among the least of Mr. B's concerns. As a 59-year-old Dutch man living with extremely severe obsessive compulsive disorder for 46 years, he had other things on his mind.
His OCD was so severe it led to moderate anxiety and mild depression. Not only was his condition extreme, but it was also resistant to traditional treatment. It got so bad that he opted to receive an implant to stimulate his brain constantly with electricity — a treatment, called deep brain stimulation (DBS), that has been shown to successfully treat OCD in the past.
It worked, but had a very peculiar side effect. As researchers write in a study published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, it turned Mr. B. into a Johnny Cash fanatic, though he'd never really listened to The Man in Black before.
Mr. B. had listened to the same music for decades, but was never a devout music lover. He was a Rolling Stones and Beatles fan (with a preference for the Stones), and listened to Dutch music as well.
But just months after flying to Minneapolis and having two sets of electrodes tunneled into his brain for the shock therapy, he had a mind-blowing run-in with the song "Ring of Fire" playing on the radio. Something about Cash's deep bass-baritone voice resonated with him at that moment.
His life had already changed. After the surgical implants and therapy, his OCD had gone from extremely severe to mild, and his depression and anxiety were at a level lower than mild. But when he heard Cash croon, another change began.
Mr. B. bought all the Johnny Cash music he could find and stopped listening to anything else — no more Beatles, no more Stones, no more Nederpop.
Instead, he played Cash all the time, and especially loved the songs from the '70s and '80s. "Folsom Prison Blues," "Ring Of Fire," and "Sunday Morning Come-Down" are his favorites. They make him feel like a hero, he told doctors.
The researchers who studied Mr. B wrote in the journal article:
Mr. B. reported that he felt good following treatment with DBS and that the songs of Johnny Cash made him feel even better. From this moment on, Mr. B. kept listening simply and solely to Johnny Cash and bought all his CD's and DVD's. When listening to his favorite songs he walks back and forth through the room and feels like he finds himself in a movie in which he plays the hero's part. He reports that there is a Johnny Cash song for every emotion and every situation, feeling happy or feeling sad and although Mr. B. played almost simply and solely Johnny Cash songs for the following years, the music never starts to annoy him.
A song for every emotion and situation may sound like another OCD-like obsession, but the researchers say that this extreme fandom doesn't actually fit the definition of obsessive behavior. It doesn't have the same cycle of anxiety and release. Instead, it's just a really intense love of music.
It seems that along with helping Mr. B. with his illness, the electrodes changed his musical taste, and perhaps also transformed the way he listens to and appreciates music.
"It seems as if Johnny Cash goes together with DBS," Mr. B. told the researchers.
Music is associated with the reward system of the brain, according to the researchers, and tunes we like trigger the release of dopamine, just like food, nicotine, and cocaine.
In people with OCD, this reward system is damaged. The brain stimulation helps normalize and restore this feel-good function.
Additionally. Mr. B. reported feeling more confident after his treatment. Research has shown that men use music to develop their own self-image. With his newfound confidence and musical taste, Mr. B. started to refer to himself as Mr. B. II, much happier with his transformed life. And he even had a new soundtrack.
But oddly enough, there's one thing that this deep appreciation for Johnny Cash depends on.
When the power source for Mr. B.'s implants runs down and they stop delivering their jolt, he falls back into old habits, listening to Dutch radio and the old Beatles and Stones albums. There's no dramatic rejection of Johnny Cash, just a loss of interest.
This actually turns out to be a good thing, as it can be a definite sign he needs a power boost. As soon as his DBS device is fully powered again, the desire for classic American country-gospel-rock-and-roll returns.
We first heard about this crazy story from Fred Barbash at the Washington Post.
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