Transcript for Oliver Sacks on "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain."


Jim Fleming: They don't award a Nobel Prize for compassion but in the case of Oliver Sacks, maybe they should. For over 30 years, in books like “Awakenings”, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”, “Seeing Voices” and “An Anthropologist on Mars”, Oliver Sacks has found ways to touch the lives of people with disorders from Parkinson’s disease to autism and then he's told their stories in ways that touch our lives too.

He's done it again in his latest book called “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain”.

Sacks told Steve Paulson about one of the patients in his new book.

Oliver Sacks: Tony was a surgeon in his early 40's, very robust and athletic and extroverted, with very little interest in music and one day, this was in 1993, he was on the phone, it was an outside phone, a storm approached, a bolt of lightning flew out from the phone, hit him in the face, gave him a cardiac arrest and along with this an out-of-body experience. He was resuscitated and he seemed pretty much himself except two or three weeks later he got what he called a sudden, insatiable passion to hear piano music and then to play piano music, and then to compose music and in the course of about 48 hours he really became transformed. He became possessed by music, that was his term. He started getting up at 3 in the morning and he got a piano, he got a piano teacher, he learned to transcribe. He was at music when he came back from his surgery, he said his wife wasn’t best pleased and basically this has continued.

Steve Paulson: And there was nothing in his background that would suggest this love of piano music?

Sacks: Really very little either on the musical side, or for that matter on what he likes to call the spiritual side because he now feels that this was a providential event, a sort of a divine intervention, and that in a sense the music comes from heaven and he has a mission to bring it to earth and so there was also a certain change in character and a sort of a mystical element crept in.

Paulson: And is he still a practicing doctor?

Sacks: Yes. I was relieved to hear he’s a very, very good doctor and he’s still a practicing orthopedist and very well regarded. He asked me if I’d ever heard of anything similar and I said in some ways, I said, I do know situations in which people have developed a sudden passion for music but this usually goes with some, you know, very obvious, VERY obvious, change in the brain and sometimes a stroke or a sort of dementia and with him, you know, there simply seems to be the addition of this passion for music, and this mystical element.

I said to him “What do you think?” and he said, as a medical man, he thinks it must be purely spiritual and we left it there, although subsequently I saw him and I said, “Well, do you think maybe divine intervention may operate via the nervous system? Wouldn’t God make use of the organism as it is?” And he says, “Well yes, yes” and so in fact he’s going to allow some tests.

Paulson: You write about other cases where music is profoundly therapeutic. For instance you have worked with people with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases and these people may not be able to talk easily, they may not even be able to move very well but often those problems seem to disappear when they listen to music or play music.

Sacks: Yeah, well this is where things started for me as a physician more than 40 years ago when I saw the patients whom I later described in “Awakenings” and these people were almost transfixed with extremely severe Parkinsonism, catatonia, these sleepy sickness people, but music could liberate them in the most remarkable way and they could dance, they could sing, they could move normally, they could think normally while the music lasted.

Music can just have an amazing effect in recalling deeply demented people to life and music has its special uses in aphasia and people who have lost language because even though they may not be able to speak they’re usually able to sing and often to recover the lyrics of a song.

Paulson: Well that’s fascinating. So you’re suggesting then that the part of our brain that deals with language is a different part than deals with singing for instance.

Sacks: Oh yeah, absolutely. This was really discovered, you know, right back in the 1860”s when it was found that Aphasic children could sing and even though there might be damage to the left hemisphere of the brain, causing the loss of language, singing seemed to be associated with the right hemisphere of the brain, although in general there’s no music centre in the brain. There’s 20 or 30 different systems, or networks, in the brain involved in listening to music or imagining music or reacting to music and I think this is why music is so robust and even when speech may be lost, you know, other parts of the brain are still there.

Paulson: Well you say something astonishing in your book, that neuroscientists can actually spot a professional musician just by looking at the image of their brain.

Sacks: Oh yeah. I was very fascinated by this and I wouldn’t have believed it had I not sort of seen this myself. This is beautiful work, especially done by a man called Gottfried Schlaug up in Boston. He started some studies in the 90”s using MRI imagery of the brain and very careful measurement of grey matter and white matter, different parts of the brain, comparing the brains of professional musicians and non-musicians and he found that in many different areas, in the corpus callosum, this great bridge between the two hemispheres, in the auditory parts of the brain and in the motor parts of the brain and in the visuospatial parts of the brain there was a real enlargement of grey matter in musicians brains and this is sometimes visible to the naked eye so that although you can’t look at a brain and say “that’s the brain of a mathematician or a visual artist” you can look at a brain and say “this is probably the brain of a musician” and I think nothing shows the power of music and the response of the brain more clearly than that.

Paulson: So do you think this different brain anatomy is something that is changed as people hone their talent for music or is it something that some people are just born with?

Sacks: I’m sure both and sometimes it’s difficult to tease out because people who are naturally very gifted are likely to have, you know, intensive early musical training but there have been studies with people who’ve had, say, a year of intensive violin training, the Suzuki method, looking at their brains before and after a year and you can see very clearly the changes which have occurred.

Paulson: You write about another remarkable case study, the English musician Clive Wearing. Explain what happened to him.

Sacks: Clive was a very gifted musician and musicologist, was pioneering renaissance music, when in 1985 he had a devastating brain infection, a herpes encephalitis, which especially destroyed some of the memory systems in his brain so he developed a profound amnesia. So much so that he would lose everything in a few seconds. I mean, a film was recently made called “The Man with the 7 Second Memory”. If you came in the room he would greet you, ten seconds later you’d be a stranger and he’d greet you again, and along with this there was a loss of many memories from his past life, a great deal of his autobiography was gone, so he’d lost what neurologist call event memory, or episodic memory. He’d lost much of his knowledge of the world but his ability to perform music and even to conduct a choir or an orchestra at a masterly level was absolutely unchanged.

Paulson: So he could remember those musical pieces. Somehow those memories came back to him, the musical memories.

Sacks: Well, let’s put it this way. The power of musical performance, the music came back to him, he might, you know, if you show him a Bach Fugue, you know, the printed page, he said “Never seen it before!” but if you just start him on the first note he would play the whole Fugue perfectly and then, in some amazement, discover that he knew it.

So that he possessed a huge memory of which he was unaware, sometimes called “implicit memory”, and when he was performing music, improvising at the organ, singing, conducting he seemed utterly himself and, you know, gifted, charming, full of sensitivity and intelligence, seconds later he’d have no memory of this and he’d be confused and disorientated and frightened so that there was this day and night difference between the two Clives.

Paulson: It also sounds like musical memory, or what you’d call implicit memory, is different than other kinds of memory.

Sacks: Yes, absolutely, and I think once music has been learned and rehearsed it then becomes lodged to a large extent in more primitive parts of the brain. Perhaps one shouldn’t say “primitive”, erm, deeper parts of the brain like the basal ganglia, the cerebellum, these are parts of the brain which are not damaged in amnesia, they’re not damaged by strokes or dementia and so really, if one has acquired a great skill, musical or otherwise, this will survive amnesia and it will survive dementia.

One does see this in some other ways. I recently saw a remarkable actor who was amnesic but is consummate acting skills and his huge Shakespearean repertoire are all there intact.

Paulson: Does music still seem mysterious to you? I mean, you’ve obviously been looking at this and thinking about its effect on the brain for decades.

Sacks: Yeah. The more I know about it the more it puzzles me, the more mysterious it gets and the more wonderful and then, you know, one puts on, or you suddenly hear from whatever, the slow movement of a Mozart violin piano concerto, or whatever, and it tears your heart out and you’re excruciated and you’re filled with feelings of joy and sometimes agony and I think feelings which have no equivalent in the rest of life and it is amazing and I think it is deeply, deeply puzzling.

We’re beginning to sort of get somewhere with at least looking, seeing how the brain changes when people listen to music, but we’re only at the beginning of understanding and whether we will ever understand music, or for that matter ever understand anything completely I don’t know.

Fleming: Oliver Sacks has written several collections of case studies examining oddities of the Human brain. The latest is “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain”. Steve Paulson talked with Dr. Sacks.


Comments for this interview

The mystery music (Gustavo Artiles, 06/06/2012 - 7:16am)

I also keep thinking about this mystery. One of the things that might be discovered eventually could be an instinct of beauty, perhaps associated with the ludic instinct. Going by Darwin, why beauty should have persisted as a positive thing for man is another question. At least I can't see its survival value (except for some of us, of course).