Sacks on Music

Hat tip to Mom for sending me this short article. My comments below.

TUNES IN OUR HEAD: Oliver Sacks on the power of music to heal us and transform our lives (From AARP Magazine Jan-Feb, 2008)

“I’d always suspected we were a musical species,” says Oliver Sacks, 74, the famed neurologist and author of Awakenings, explaining how he decided to delve deeply into understanding the role of music in the brain. But his research turned up more than he’d anticipated. “I’m actually amazed at how much of the brain is recruited for musical experience,” he says. The ability to appreciate music, he believes, is a defining quality of our humanity. In his new book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (Knopf), he shares his discoveries. He talked to us about music’s astounding potential.

*Music as medicine– “In music therapy for Parkinson’s disease, where my interest got kindled, the rhythm of the music is crucially important. People with Parkinson’s misjudge time grossly and have difficulty coordinating speech with their movements, so they tend to stutter or stumble, or just come to a stop. While the music lasts, it gives them precisely what they lack, which tempo and rhythm and organized time. The music doesn’t have to be familiar or particularly emotionally evocative for them. For people with alzheimer’s, it’s a different story. For these patients, the evocativeness of music is primary-the music has to recall emotions and scenes and memories they seem to have lost. Even for those with advanced Alzheimer’s who have lost language, music can grab them and calm or stimulate them. It’s enormously powerful.”

*Compensating– “Blindness seems to enhance many people’s appreciation of music. And many deaf people are able to analyze very complex experiences in the peripheral visual field, which sighted people can’t do. I think whatever sense one loses, there’s a sort of compensation. You can see in scans how, when one part of the brain isn’t getting its normal input, it won’t be wasted. It will be pressed to another use.”

*Musical hallucinations– “Imagining music can activate parts of the brain almost as vividly as listening to music. But our enormous sensitivity to music also has certain dangers, including those catchy tunes that infuriatingly repeat in our heads. These musical hallucinations evaporate eventually, but probably the best relief is listening to other music.”

*Music haters– “An emotional response to music is very strong and almost universal, yet there are a few baffling exceptions. Sigmund Freud, for example, lacked appreciation for music altogether. I actually think something was missing in Freud’s life, and perhaps his analytical communications would have been richer with music. But he’s a puzzle because, at least from the few things he says, one wonders if in fact he was suppressing an emotional response because it mystified or angered him.

*Beatlemania?– “I didn’t respond to the Beatles, probably because I was 30 when they appeared. But I think if I’d been 15, it would have been very different. It’s such a passionate and impressionable time in life. And I don’t think it’s just music. It’s the poetry, the landscapes, the paintings. I can recall novels I read at 15 or 20 in boring detail. But I don’t remember what I read at 60 nearly as well.”

*Transcendence– “I surround myself with music-Chopin, Bach-and it takes me places I can’t take myself. The last concert I went to, I watched the most amazing conductor, David Randall, who is in his 90s but as agile and energetic as someone in his 20s. He leapt up onto the podium and conducted a wonderful Mendelssohn’s Walpurgisnacht. I see a lot of sad, sick, aging people, but I also see people like Randall. He gave an amazing impromptu talk. Resilient, witty. There was just no age there.”

I’ve always remembered my high school band director Mr. Palensky wistfully reminding us that playing music requires us to use 90% of our brain, compared with about 10% for most other activities.

Sacks’ research with Parkinson’s patients is especially interesting; it points toward the idea that humans have a deep inner pulse, a beat that helps us organize time, and that Parkinson’s involves the loss of that pulse but it can be externalized and regained through music.  I like that the pulse seems to be something innate within us; we don’t have to learn it, it is already there, we just discover what’s inside.

Musical hallucinations – This reminds me of something kind of weird I’ve been experiencing lately.  When I’m listening to “…not nothing” in the car, I can often feel my throat moving.   I’m subconsciously subvocalizing to my own music!  It can be uncomfortable, especially for the parts where I sing loud, because my throat really tightens up as if I were belting out a pure tone.  (Bad technique, I’m sure…)

The Beatlemania thing seems to have less to do with music than with memory, though they’re related (as the Alzheimer’s research shows).

Transcendence.  Yes.  Ego-less-ness.  Magic.  These are The Reason I make music. -h