Art as a Survival Tool Series: IV

Remembering Oliver Sacks and Musicophilia

This blog is the fourth in a series of five on Art as a Survival Tool, blogs that examine the crucial role art plays in the fulfillment of the human experience.

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“For anyone who has ever wondered how the climax of Beethoven symphonies can move us to tears, or why the pounding rhythms of a festival can cause us to lose all inhibitions, his [Oliver Sacks’] 2007 book Musicophilia is a revelation.” – Tom Barnes,
On August 30, 2015, the beloved neuroscientist Oliver Sacks died in his Greenwich Village apartment in Manhattan surrounded by loved ones. This great visionary, whose work started with Awakenings and ended with this article in The New Yorker, made an astonishing scientific contribution to the performing arts with his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, published in 2007.

Caught in the Act originally slated a blog on music therapy for this, the fourth installment of our Art as Survival Tool series, but in light of Dr. Sacks’ passing, we felt compelled to recognize his ground-breaking work in neuroscience that illuminated the mysterious, integral mind-body connection between music and the human experience.

Music can move us to the heights or depths of emotion. It can persuade us to buy something, or remind us of our first date. It can lift us out of depression when nothing else can. It can get us dancing to its beat. But the power of music goes much, much further. Indeed, music occupies more areas of our brain than language does–humans are a musical species.” — Oliver Sacks, M.D.

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When Sacks published Musicophilia, NPR’s Andrea Seabrook caught up with the scientist and writer on All Things Considered. We re-print the transcript of her interview with Dr. Sacks here, in which he discusses music and Tourette’s, the phenomenon of neurogamy, Parkinson’s disease and the peculiar ability of the brain to imagine music as effectively as actually hearing it. You can also listen to the interview and read an excerpt from the book on the NPR archives page.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host: Neurologist Oliver Sacks has spent a career investigating the brain and its capacity to confound us. He’s written about many of his patients, some of who have lost the ability to remember, others whose minds no longer control their bodies. Sacks earned national recognition for his book “Awakenings,” which chronicles the lives of patients suffering from the so-called sleeping sickness. That was in the ’70s.

Now, Dr. Sacks is out with book number 10, “Musicophilia.”

Dr. OLIVER SACKS (Neurologist; Author, “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain”): Well, I’ve always wanted to get people’s stories. I also like to know what’s going on in the brain and how this wonderful two or three pounds of stuff in the head is able to underlie all our imagination, underlie our soul, our individuality. And music is a special part of this mind-body investigation.

SEABROOK: In “Musicophilia,” Oliver Sacks explores the brain’s relationship to music. It’s a relationship that’s both personal and universal.

Dr. SACKS: Certainly, music is central in every culture known to us. Darwin imagined that singing and music was part of a courtship behavior and other forms of behavior before speech. Some people have thought that speech comes first. Some people have thought that music is incidental and rather trivial. Steven Pinker sometimes calls it auditory cheesecake. But I get the feeling that it’s sort of been an essential – had an essential bonding power, you know, from the start.

SEABROOK: Let me pull back the lens for a second and say that at the beginning of your book, you proposed that we look at music for a second as if we were aliens from outer space. Say a Martian comes down and it lands here and it sees human beings sitting in a concert hall, listening to musicians play around with pitch and tone and all these things that are essentially meaningless. There’s no information involved.

Dr. SACKS: Well, there is certainly no information in the way that language conveys information. You can’t say where someone is or what they look like, but you can call up emotions and moods and states of mind. Quite how this happens is very mysterious but, certainly, this is central to music.

But then, there are also other aspects. One’s Martian would see that people are involuntarily keeping time to music – they’re tapping. The rhythm is in them. I mean if you go to something like the Grateful Dead, you can see 15,000 people moving in unison. It’s a most amazing thing. It reminds me an old term used to be used in the early days of hypnosis, of neurogamy – the marriage of nervous systems – and everyone is synchronized there by music.

SEABROOK: I never would have expected you to bring up the Grateful Dead, sir.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SACKS: Well, it’s not exactly my sort of thing, but I did go there when I was dancing and sort of in the zone with everyone else.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Dr. Sacks, we hear music in our heads. How? Why?

Dr. SACKS: How is part of the fact that we are continually recollecting and sort of mapping our experiences – whether they’re visual experiences or emotional experiences and this imagining is very real. So that if, for example, you have electrodes on the head or you’re imaging the brain, and you ask someone to imagine a piece of music, you will often see activity similar to what you would have if they were listening to the music.

Having said that, to come to a why so many of us have music going through our heads all the while is something I think we should have puzzled the Martians even more than with the way in which we go to concerts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Some of your patients that you described in your book are professional musicians – others are not. What are the differences between musicians’ brains and others?

Dr. SACKS: Well, they can be very striking and there have been beautiful studies of these by a man called Schlaug – Gottfried Schlaug – up at Harvard. He used brain imagery to measure the sizes of different parts of the brain. He found first, for example, that the corpus callosum – the big band which unites the two hemispheres of the brain – tends to be larger in musicians. And then he found enlargements of the cortex, the grey matter, in the auditory parts of the brain, and in motor parts of the brain to a degree which may be almost visible to the naked eye. So that, say, if one looks at pictures of brains, you might not be able to say this man is a genius or this man is a fool, or this man is a visual artist, but you could probably say that man is a musician.

SEABROOK: That is just…

Dr. SACKS: And that’s…

SEABROOK: …astonishing.

Dr. SACKS: And he makes them…

SEABROOK: What do you make of that? What do you make of that, sir?

Dr. SACKS: It shows, in tandem, the power of music to affect many different parts of the brain and the plasticity of the brain to respond to the stimulus of music. If one is doing five-finger exercises, you can see changes in the brain in half an hour.

SEABROOK: What do you mean five…

Dr. SACKS: And the…

SEABROOK: …finger exercises? What is that?

Dr. SACKS: Oh, I’m sorry. Just doing scales. And that now, of course, the changes you find then will be temporary changes but with repeated practice, then the changes become anatomical.

SEABROOK: Let’s talk for a moment about how music works on people whose brains are ill, for example, Tourette’s. What’s going on with music in people with Tourette syndrome?

Dr. SACKS: All right. Well, as a start, I think a lot of people with Tourette would simply say they’re different. People with Tourette’s have all sorts of involuntary or compulsive movements but they can also have accelerated thoughts and movements and unusually vivid imagery. What was absolutely fascinating, which I saw in New York recently – I wish I could have filmed it – was a drum circle for people with Tourette syndrome. And there were 30-odd people with Tourette syndrome, all of them making sudden movements. Tics – all of them ticking in their own time. And then the lead drummer started, who himself was a gifted drummer with Tourette’s, and everyone fell into synchrony with him in the most wonderful way. One felt they were being orchestrated as a group but also that their nervous systems were being orchestrated so they were no longer sort of prone to sudden impulsive movements. They were with it. For me, this was almost an allegory of bonding and of coordination both between people and also inside the nervous system.

SEABROOK: What about people with Parkinson’s? You’ve worked with Parkinson’s patients.

Dr. SACKS: Right.

SEABROOK: How do people with Parkinson’s – how does music work on their brains?

Dr. SACKS: Well, in a way, this is where things started for me back in the mid-’60s when I came to a hospital in New York and I saw 80-odd patients with the severest Parkinsonism, who were really absolutely frozen or transfixed and not able to initiate any movement or any speech of their own. And at that point, there was no medication which could make any difference to them. But what was well known and what all the nurses knew is that music could unlock them…


Dr. SACKS: …at least for a while. And they could move. They could dance. They could sing. They could think as long as the music lasted. I once took W. H. Auden to see a music session…

SEABROOK: The poet.

Dr. SACKS: …with these people.

SEABROOK: You took…

Dr. SACKS: The poet. And he was amazed at what he saw and he quoted an aphorism of the German poet Novalis, who said every disease is a musical problem. Every cure is a musical solution.

SEABROOK: World-renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks is the author of the new book, “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.”

Thank you very much, sir.

Dr. SACKS: Thank you, Andrea.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: Now, these parting words: In this time of international complication and war, consider this from the ancient Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch – I think Dr. Sacks would appreciate this. Medicine, to produce health, has to investigate disease; and music, to create harmony, must investigate discord.


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