What if Fandom Is Really Just Brain Damage?


So come to find out that — I hope you’re sitting down — almost everything they taught you in school about Phineas Gage (that olden days railroad worker whose personality “changed completely” after a spike flew through his brain) was agenda-driven baloney, even borderline-libelous.

Just more of that “settled science” we keep hearing so much about.

(In other news: polar bears…)

Maybe when they rewrite the textbooks, they’ll swap out Phineas Gage for Mr. B.

You see, Mr. B was “a 58 year old Dutch man who had suffered from severe obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety since the age of 13,” and who didn’t respond to any of the usual treatments.

As a last resort, doctors hooked electrodes to Mr. B’s brain.

His symptoms noticeably improved.

So (at least in my opinion) did his taste in music.

Six months after surgery, Mr. B’s stopped listening to his old favorites, the Rolling Stones, and became a Johnny Cash fan.

A superfan, actually…

He had been listening to the radio, when he coincidentally heard “Ring of Fire” of the Country and Western singer and experienced that he was deeply affected by the song. Mr. B. started to listen to more songs of Johnny Cash and noticed that he was deeply moved by the raw and low-pitched voice of the singer.

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… From the first time Mr. B. heard a Johnny Cash song, [all other music] has been banned.

Wow, I think I dated this guy.

I mean: Does anyone else remember about 10 or 15 years ago, when literally the same hipsters who mocked Elvis Costello for putting out a (frankly terrific) non-ironic country album in 1981 spontaneously decided — en masse, like a school of fish — that Johnny Cash (and George Jones and Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette — and here in Canada, Stompin’ Tom Connors) were peerless geniuses who they’d admired all along? No, really, man!

(When I was writing stuff like this about Dolly Parton in the mid-1990s, these same people rolled their eyes impatiently and went back to their serious, literary scribblings about acid rain and nuclear winter.)

But in Mr. B’s case of “sudden onset fandom,” there was a catch:

As his electrodes’ batteries wore down, his Johnny Cash obsession did, too.

The implications are mortifying to any thoughtful person who happens to be a fan of anything or anyone:

What if our abiding affection for and/or obsession with the Chicago Bears or Hot Wheels or the Bloomsbury Group is nothing but an involuntary, irrational “Agnes of God”-type synapse malfunction?

Cynical materialists have long insisted that “love” is simply the socially acceptable word we’ve adopted to describe (and hopefully domesticate) a potentially dangerous chemical cocktail of hormones and pheromones.

Certainly, a brain-based theory of fandom helps explain extreme collecting, convention attendance and cosplay, and our full-throated defense of and loyalty to total strangers in the face of even the most damning evidence against them.

Take me: I’m still struggling with the whole Woody Allen thing.

And I’ve written here before that “Pete Townshend, Sarah Palin, and Zombie Frank Sinatra (…) could team up on a five-state ax-murdering spree and I’d be insisting that, well, they probably had a good reason.”

Our “relationships” with favorite performers or sports teams or entertainment franchises can certainly have the whiff of “battered wife syndrome” about them.

While I’m hesitant to bring “studies” into this (see “Gage, Phineas,” above), scientists (and marketers) are still trying to understand a similar brain-based phenomenon:

Our stubborn preference for the music of our teens, over and above any of “that damn noise” the “kids these days” are listening to.

At the end of the day, maybe Mr. B’s experience holds the key to curing that most aggravating modern musical phenomenon of all:

Ear worm.