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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks


"Familiar music acts as a sort of Proustian mnemonic, eliciting emotions and associations that had long been forgotten, giving ... access once again to moods and memories, thoughts and words that had seemingly been completely lost."


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.

4 comments:

Sun Singer said...

What a fascinating book! In some ways, the author is "proving" what musicians and artists and writers have been saying for years about the power of music for healing, meditation, shamanic journeys, and memories of old and dear places.

Malcolm

Nevine said...

I've read "Musicophilia" and I still have it. It is a truly amazing book that demonstrates non-traditional ways in which our minds operate, or can be made or allowed to operate. Psychologists spent so many years examining the obvious mechanisms while completely ignoring some of the subtleties and nuances of life that make us tick. And music is no subtle thing... it lives with us in everything we do. So it is just fascinating that music can help us to heal on more levels than one. I loved reading this book, and I often go back and peek into it for inspiring stories. Thank you for reviewing it, Judith.

Nevine

Judith Mercado said...

Thank you, Malcolm and Nevine, for sharing your thoughts. This is a special book which is even influencing how I am approaching my next post. I now realize that my recent posts and this next one, though they all seem to be about different subjects -- music, music+neurology, and religion -- they all have to do with penetrating the cognitive self and reaching a primal self. Music is one of the most powerful tools for accomplishing that, but now I am discovering that religion has its own subset of tools which can accomplish the same thing.

Judy

A Cuban In London said...

Many thanks for introducing me to both book and author. They were unknown to me. Music is indeed innate and currently there is extensive research in the UK to prove that theory. It affects a part of our brain called the amygdala, which is in charge of responding to acts of aggression and at the same time triggers off emotions of fear. It might not sound romantic but it definitely supports your well-written post. :-)

Greetings from London.