Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks. New York: Vintage Books, 2008.
Summary: Renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks chronicles the neuroscience of music–the various ways music affects the brain, and the unusual effects of various neurological conditions on our perception, performance, and experience of music.
Oliver Sacks died on August 30 of this year. A few months earlier, my son gave me this book, and it seemed especially appropriate to pull it off the “to be read” pile and acquaint myself with the work of this neuroscientist and physician. Before opening the book, I had one of those heart-stopping moments as I found myself staring at the cover picture of Sacks and thought I was looking at a doppelganger! I guess balding men with graying beards, glasses and a certain shape of head can look a bit like each other.
What Sacks does is chronicle the fascinating ways music and the brain interact and some of the unusual conditions that involve unusual responses to music. In the course of this book he explores a range of phenomena beginning with a sudden onset of musical interest following a lightening strike, the ways music might evoke seizures or suppress the tics of Tourettes or the shaking of Parkinson’s. He wonders whether the advent of iPods will result in more brainworms–those tunes we can’t get out of our heads.He describes musical hallucinations, where one hears music in one’s head even when none is playing.
He explores musicality from tone deafness to perfect pitch (which occurs more in musical families and where musical training begins early) and synesthesia, where music is associated with color. He explores the connections between music, memory and movement. He describes Clive, who because of brain infection that affected his temporal lobes lives in a perpetual present with no memory of past moments. Yet somehow he remembers music he knew in the past.
Perhaps a highlight of the book was his description of a camp for people with Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects the development of the brain resulting in low IQs and yet incredible verbal and musical skills. He describes the delight these people had in talking and making music with one another.
In one of the concluding chapters he describes the work done with Alzheimer’s patients and how, for them as well, music is a connection to memories of the past, and an anchor to their no-longer remembered lives that is profound. He talks about “the loss of self” and how music helps Alzheimer’s patients connect to some sense of “self” when the other memories are gone.
The book left me in wonder at the intricacies of the human brain and how the neural circuitry related to our perception, memory of, and making of music interact with speech, thought, emotion, and other memories. And it reminded me of the power of music–a power to evoke emotions, memories, and even to address troubling neurological conditions. It reminds me of how when I am learning, singing and performing a piece of music, I find myself tapping into a different aspect of who I am from when I am simply speaking or writing or reading. And I found myself thankful for the life of Oliver Sacks, who cared for people with troubling conditions and brought together his love for his patients, his skills in research, and his own musicality and life history into this fascinating narrative of music and the human brain.