Oliver Sacks has some pretty incredible stories regarding music. And by incredible, I don't mean he hung out with the Rolling Stones or played tuba with Arcade Fire. The London-born neurologist's tales are simply crazy to comprehend. He studies the innate ties between music and the mind, and his findings underpin the ways people really could, say, be "born to rock" — or, at the very least, that they could develop a psychological need to rock at some point in their lives.
In recent pieces for the New Yorker, Sacks has chronicled the experiences of patients whose connections to music grew inexplicably stronger after brain injuries caused by accidents or illnesses. He wrote about a 42-year-old orthopedic surgeon who never had even a passing interest in music. But after the man was hit by lightning — in a phone booth, no less — he developed a sudden and insatiable interest in piano concerts that has never left him. Not only did he want to hear piano music, he also wanted to learn how to play it. The man became so obsessive he eventually wrote and performed original music on the piano — all of which was instigated by a gigantic bolt of electricity to the brain.
Sacks told this story and others from the stage at the Palace of Fine Arts last week as part of the City Arts & Lectures series Talking Music. Looking very undoctorlike in a Giants cap and black sneakers, his manner of dress as down-to-earth as his comedic asides, the affable Sacks took questions about music's ability to heal the dying; about certain diseases, such as Williams syndrome, that make a person more musically attuned than most; and about the mind's need for repetition in song (hence the mental attraction, whether you like a commercial jingle or not, to a track with a strong repetitive hook).
Sacks, most famous for his book Awakenings (later made into a movie starring Robin Williams), also noted that playing music shapes the brain differently. So while you can't tell someone's career from the shape of his or her brain, you can tell when that person is a musician. This, of course, prompted a question from one musician in the crowd worried that a big "music brain" would push out other areas of learning (Sacks reassured him that was not the case).
Sacks also recounted the amazing tale of British musicologist Clive Wearing, who suffered a brain infection so severe his memory span shrunk to the space of a blink — in a matter of seconds, he forgot everything from details about his doctor to life with his wife. And yet with music Wearing never forgot anything. He could lead a choir, sing a song, and play an instrument from start to finish. When he was making music, he was completely normal. The moment the music was over, though, the "abyss was waiting for him," Sacks explained.
Music resonates so strongly with humans we literally can't get it out of our heads — although Sacks also treats cases where that's a bad thing. He calls "musical hallucinations" — an affliction where the brain's jukebox is constantly loading up the same song on repeat — "the commonest form of nonpsychotic hallucinations."
"If you're going to have amnesia, you might as well be a musician," Sacks quipped. Having worked with people who have severe memory loss, he's learned that "familiarity with music is the last thing that goes." He added that you could wipe out all other memories from the brain and music would still be there, "locked away like a treasure at the base."
It's a fascinating idea. At a time when music fans are so fickle and always onto the next download, it's comforting to think about how we've been reacting to it on much deeper, and almost spiritual, levels.