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Oliver Sachs

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As a psychologist, he wd be sitting there listening to a patient, thinking "He's just plain nuts" but instead chose to just listen and get the experience of someone very different from myself.

Our subcortex has some very primitive basic functions which it retains even when our top level brain is badly damaged. Alzheimers patients can often sing beautifully and flawlessly, even when have no other verbal abilities.

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It is a remarkable fact that if I merely type "the Mission: Impossible theme tune" or "Beethoven's Fifth", you will probably start humming to yourself. We take it for granted, but how is it possible? What is going on in our brains? Oliver Sacks, the neurologist author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, here devotes a book to the cognitive miracles of music. "It really is a very odd business," he muses, "that all of us, to varying degrees, have music in our heads."

Sacks's deeply warm and sympathetic study is about pathologies of musical response and what they might teach us about the "normal" faculty of music. It reports on fascinating new findings from anatomy - a musician's brain is easily distinguishable on a scan from those of others; and the passage from ear to brain is not a one-way conduit but works both ways, the brain being able to tune the ears, as it were. But mostly Musicophilia is about the more mysterious, and currently inexplicable, ways in which music affects the brain, for good or ill. And when it affects the brain, it affects the whole person, as Plato knew, seeking to ban some types of music from his Republic for the health of the citizenry. Shakespeare's Richard II, meanwhile, could have provided an epigraph to Sacks's book - the King at one point complains: "This music mads me. Let it sound no more; / For though it have holp madmen to their wits, / In me it seems it will make wise men mad."

Sacks tells some very moving stories about those with terrifyingly profound amnesia, or Alzheimer's disease, for whom music can "restore them to themselves". People with aphasia can be taught to speak again through singing. On the other hand, previously healthy people begin to have "musical hallucinations", blasted by intrusive ghostly music during every waking second; and others have seizures in response to music, or "musicogenic epilepsy" - which, intriguingly, can be selective. One woman Sacks cites "had seizures only in response to 'modern, dissonant music,' never in response to classical or romantic music" - and her husband was a composer of the type of music that gave her seizures, which one suspects may be a hint. But such a violent response to certain music might be more common than suspected: "Many people, [one researcher thought], might start to get a queer feeling - disturbing, perhaps frightening - when they heard certain music, but then would immediately retreat from the music, turn it off, or block their ears, so that they did not progress to a full-blown seizure." Indeed, certain styles of free jazz have always made me physically nauseous.

There is, of course, a continuum between the pathological states that Sacks discusses and everyday experiences of music. The phenomenon of "brainworms" - irritating tunes and jingles that get lodged in our heads - is only one step away from full-blown musical hallucination, and Sacks also compares it to the obsessive ticcing of Tourette's syndrome. It is intriguing, too, to wonder where on the continuum certain historical figures could be placed. Here, for example, is Tchaikovsky as a child, weeping in bed: "This music! It is here in my head. Save me from it!" Was he suffering from vivid musical hallucinations, which he learned to manage by writing them down? Here, too, is Shostakovich, refusing to have a piece of shrapnel removed from his head, because when he tilted his head in a certain way he could hear music, which he incorporated into his compositions.

At the other end of the continuum are those Sacks describes as "amusic", who do not seem to understand or feel music at all. He considers with pity the case of Vladimir Nabokov, who famously said he experienced music merely as "an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds"; he also wonders about how little music is mentioned in Henry James's work.

And yet even profound amusia might be just an exaggerated form of a dysfunction, or adaptation, that affects us all. We might be drawn to this conclusion in a roundabout way, by seeing that, contrastingly, other people are awakened to profound musical powers after some kind of brain injury. A 42-year-old man struck by lightning suddenly experiences an unquenchable thirst for music, learns to play the piano, and starts to compose. In a wonderful footnote, Sacks offers his own wry confession that "in 1965 ... I was taking massive doses of amphetamines", and experienced a heightening of his powers of musical memory and transcription, although his abstract reasoning was shot to pieces. This, he suggests, might be the effect of suppressing the work of the temporal lobes. And so the intriguing hypothesis develops that we might all have such latent musical talents, if only we could find the spigot and turn it.

Sacks also describes a rare congenital disorder called Williams syndrome, in which people never develop mentally beyond the abilities of a toddler, but have an extraordinary musical facility, playing back any piece on first hearing. Though he never exactly spells it out, the melancholy supposition arises that a repression of musical potential is the price we pay for our powers of ratiocination. Some might think the price is too high.

(NY Times)

In books like “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” and “An Anthropologist on Mars,” the physician Oliver Sacks has given us some compelling and deeply moving portraits of patients in predicaments so odd, so vexing, so metaphysically curious that they read like something out of a tale by Borges or Calvino.

In his latest book, “Musicophilia,” Dr. Sacks focuses on people afflicted with strange musical disorders or powers — “musical misalignments” that affect their professional and daily lives. A composer of atonal music starts having musical hallucinations that are “tonal” and “corny”: irritating Christmas songs and lullabies that play endlessly in his head. A musical savant with a “phonographic” memory learns the melodies to hundreds of operas, as well as what every instrument plays and what every voice sings. A composer with synesthesia sees specific colors when he hears music in different musical keys: G minor, for instance, is not just “yellow” but “ocher”; D minor is “like flint, graphite”; and F minor is “earthy, ashy.” A virtuosic pianist who for many years bizarrely lost the use of his right hand, finds at the age of 36 that the fourth and fifth fingers of his right hand have started to curl uncontrollably under his palm when he plays.

Dr. Sacks writes not just as a doctor and a scientist but also as a humanist with a philosophical and literary bent, and he’s able in these pages to convey both the fathomless mysteries of the human brain and the equally profound mysteries of music: an art that is “completely abstract and profoundly emotional,” devoid of the power to “represent anything particular or external,” but endowed with the capacity to express powerful, inchoate moods and feelings.

He muses upon the unequal distribution of musical gifts among the human population: Che Guevara, he tells us, was “rhythm deaf,” capable of dancing a mambo while an orchestra was playing a tango, whereas Freud and Nabokov seemed incapable of receiving any pleasure from music at all. He writes about the “narrative or mnemonic power of music,” its ability to help a person follow intricate sequences or retain great volumes of information — a power that explains why music can help someone with autism perform procedures he or she might otherwise be incapable of.

And he writes about the power of rhythm to help coordinate and energize basic locomotive movement, a power that explains why music can help push athletes to new levels and why the right sort of music (generally, legato with a well-defined rhythm) can help liberate some parkinsonian patients from “their frozenness.”

Indeed, this volume makes a powerful case for the benefits of music therapy. In Dr. Sacks’ view, music can aid aphasics and patients with parkinsonism, and it can help orient and anchor patients with advanced dementia because “musical perception, musical sensibility, musical emotion and musical memory can survive long after other forms of memory have disappeared.”

Music, he says, can act as a “Proustian mnemonic, eliciting emotions and associations that had been long forgotten, giving the patient access once again to mood and memories, thoughts and worlds that had seemingly been completely lost.”

As he’s done in his earlier books, Dr. Sacks underscores the resilience of the human mind, the capacity of some people to find art in affliction, and to adapt to loss and deprivation. Among the people who appear in this book are children with Williams syndrome, who have low I.Q.’s and extraordinary musical and narrative gifts (one young woman learns to sing operatic arias in more than 30 languages), and elderly dementia patients who develop unexpected musical talents.

Dr. Sacks notes that there are stories in medical literature about people who develop artistic gifts after left-hemisphere strokes, and he suggests that “there may be a variety of inhibitions — psychological, neurological and social — which may, for one reason or another, relax in one’s later years and allow a creativity as surprising to oneself as to others.”

The composer Tobias Picker, who has Tourette’s, tells Dr. Sacks that the syndrome has shaped his imagination: “I live my life controlled by Tourette’s but use music to control it. I have harnessed its energy — I play with it, manipulate it, trick it, mimic it, taunt it, explore it, exploit it, in every possible way.”

Dr. Sacks notes that while the composer’s newest piano concerto “is full of turbulent, agitated whirls and twirls” in sections, Mr. Picker is able to write in every mode — “the dreamy and tranquil no less than the violent and stormy” — and can move “from one mood to another with consummate ease.”

Although this book could have benefited from some heavy-duty editing that would have removed repetitions and occasional patches of technical jargon, these lapses are easily overlooked by the reader, so powerful and compassionate are Dr. Sacks’ accounts of his patients’ dilemmas. He has written a book that not only contributes to our understanding of the elusive magic of music but also illuminates the strange workings, and misfirings, of the human mind.

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