In my recent post about the Puerto Rican cuatro, I mentioned that cuatro music had the capacity to ferry me back instantly to the music of my childhood church. It seemed to me that music of any sort has the ability to penetrate cognitive barriers. That led me to reread Musicophilia, Dr. Oliver Sacks’ book about the intersection of music and neurology. Some of you may remember Dr. Sacks from his portrayal by Robin Williams in the movie Awakenings. In that fictionalized version of a real-life event, a neurologist helps his patient [Robert De Niro] emerge from a decades-long frozen state, if only for a tragically limited time.
In Musicophilia, Dr. Sacks says that "Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional." Drawing on decades of clinical practice, he concludes that, even in the most brain-damaged individuals, “there is still a self to be called upon, even if music, and only music, can do the calling." The implicit suggestion is that people with normal brain function can also access and be affected by music in ways that transcend cognition. For all of us, the “propensity to music … lies so deep in human nature that one must think of it as innate.”
He cites examples of persons with no apparent musical talent who become talented musicians after an inciting event like being struck by lightning. Others, who might have been musically inclined before losing significant cognitive function, are still able to discuss and perform music skillfully. He points to the example of a patient whose leg after a stroke only moved in response to music and how music therapy ultimately enabled her to recover fully.
Dr. Sacks concludes that “… in the nervous system, whatever else is going on, music can act as an activator, a de-inhibitor. In the case of paralysis, it can kick-start a damaged or inhibited motor system into action again.” Both he and others have, as a result, developed highly effective therapies using music to ameliorate the condition of patients otherwise nonresponsive to treatment.
Musicophilia is not the most well-crafted book in terms of its structural narrative. It sometimes reads like a string of anecdotes about experiences Dr. Sacks’ patients have had with music, both as an affliction and as a treatment. For those interested in exploring the influence of music on the psyche, though, it is still a tantalizing read. For those who suffer from or who know individuals with neurological deficits, it is a particularly worthwhile read.