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tales of music and the brain
September 26, 2007 8:51 AM   Subscribe

Musicophilia. Metafilter's own digaman interviews Oliver Sacks on his forthcoming book and a lifetime's worth of loving music and studying its effects on the human mind.

Music therapy for persons with Alzheimers (pdf).
Just in Time by the Grunyons, the a cappella vocal group referenced in the article.
Grainy 1986 interview with Dr. Sacks on The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (worth watching for his glorious beard alone).
Wonderful NPR segment on Williams Syndrome.
Brief article on hallucinogens, healing, and music.
posted by melissa may (52 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
Dang, I forgot: homonculus's recent Mefi thread that also touched on some of these themes.
posted by melissa may at 8:56 AM on September 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


Thanks for the link, Melissa! And it's great that you hunted down the Grunyons link. It was very moving to hear that spirited performance that Sacks introduced this way:

"Let me play something for you. This is Woody Geist, who I describe in my new book. He's had Alzheimer's for 40 years, and is profoundly disabled in almost every way, but is a member of an a cappella group called the Grunyons. After I'd written about him, he sang professionally again, and it was beautiful, though people were afraid he'd be lost before the performance. Ten seconds afterwards, he had no memory of it."

I was especially happy that Sacks was willing to write up the annotated list of his favorite classical pieces linked in the FPP on "loving music." He's brilliant, passionate, and wonderful.

There's also a fantastic in-depth piece on Sacks in the new Seed by Jonah Lehrer, but it doesn't seem to be online yet. It's exquisitely written and closely observed, and talks about some of the difficulties that Sacks is facing these days with his own health.
posted by digaman at 9:04 AM on September 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


"Bach's Chaconne in D Minor, played by Yehudi Menuhin. When I was a boy, I heard Menuhin play this piece in Harringay Arena in London. I was overwhelmed, for I had never before heard such playing live, I had never been so close to an actual performer, and there was a special moral sense, too, because it was the middle of World War II, and it had required a special courage for Menuhin to come to a city where bombs were falling, and to perform in so vulnerable a public space. Sixty years later, on the fifth anniversary of September 11th, I was arrested, as I approached the southern tip of Manhattan on my morning cycle ride, by the strains of the Chaconne. It was a young violinist, playing to a totally silent crowd who had gathered to mark this sad occasion. Here again, Bach's piece was a musical and moral declaration, an affirmation of the transcendence of art in the face of violence and fear." -- from Sacks' IPod Playlist
posted by digaman at 9:08 AM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Very cool digaman and melissa may. Too bad I have to actually do stuff today. It really looks wonderful and I'm looking forward to it, and to seeing Sacks' glorious beardage (yeah, that would be a good band name).
posted by sleepy pete at 9:19 AM on September 26, 2007


This is an awesome post! Thanks melissa may and digaman. Music and psychology and the brain! I can't wait to read his new book.
posted by sarahnade at 9:20 AM on September 26, 2007


Oh, you are so welcome, digaman. I should also mention that I looked for for The Mind Traveller, a BBC series that Dr. Sacks did in 1996; a segment called "Don't Be Shy, Mr. Sacks" dealt specifically with Williams. I couldn't find it freely viewable anywhere, but the whole series is worth seeking out.

And digaman, I'm trying very hard not to envy your getting to speak with him (twice!) and completely failing. Please forgive me!
posted by melissa may at 9:21 AM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Great post--I have my new issue of Wired but haven't read it yet, didn't even know this was in there! I'll be reading the interview this afternoon.

(When people like Sacks speak so eloquently and persuasively about music, I am reminded to be deeply thankful and grateful every day that making and teaching music is how I earn a living.)
posted by LooseFilter at 9:23 AM on September 26, 2007


Awesome, LooseFilter.

By the way -- the online version of the interview is even better than what's in the magazine. (It's the "director's cut," the director being moi.) And Sacks' IPod list isn't even in the magazine. So make sure you check out the online stuff too.
posted by digaman at 9:26 AM on September 26, 2007


A reader sent me a great quote re: Sacks' comments about Mozart:

"Others may reach heaven with their works. But Mozart, he comes from there."

--Josef Krips, former director of the San Francisco Symphony
posted by digaman at 9:29 AM on September 26, 2007


Ok, I am finally compelled to write this. Sacks reflects at great length on his personal experiences- his family of origin, his Jewishness, his own body (in A Leg to Stand On)- why does he never mention his romantic history, and in particular if he's gay? Yes, I really, really want him to be gay, but regardless, how does somebody who is clearly not "private" about much of anything (his childhood is an open book), why nothing about THAT important aspect of his personal life?

And don't tell me for a behavioural scientist that sexuality doesn't "matter." It matters. If it matters that he's an "old Jewish atheist" whose brother played clarinet, it matters if he's gay or not.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 9:38 AM on September 26, 2007


Well, that was the most thoughtful and informed Wired interview I've read in some time. Thanks!
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:41 AM on September 26, 2007


This is good. Thanks for the links, melissa may, and plaudits to digaman as well.

A few months ago I discovered that one of the only sure-fire ways to soothe my sometimes agitated senile mother is to crank Bach, the Beach Boys, or the Glenn Miller Orchestra and turn on the iTunes visualizer. She'll hypnotize herself watching the psychedelic patterns and nodding and smiling to the music.

icanhasneuroscienz.

Bookmarking the music therapy site.

I have to say, though, that "I constructed a sort of pharmacological mountain" strikes me as a really pretentious way of saying "I got tore the hell up."
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:59 AM on September 26, 2007


Well yes, BOP, but Oliver just talks that way. Do you expect him to talk like a 17-year-old kid from the Boston suburbs? :)
posted by digaman at 10:02 AM on September 26, 2007


I dunno. I'm a musician and a music lover, and I just completely don't get this guy. Maybe I haven't done enough drugs? :P
posted by Foosnark at 10:04 AM on September 26, 2007


I found him to be quite revealing in 'Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood', but there was no mention of his sexuality. Can I ask why you desire that "Yes, I really, really want him to be gay."?
posted by tellurian at 10:23 AM on September 26, 2007


tellurian- I find his completely hot, that's why. Why do some straight women want Tom Cruise (or whoever) to be straight? And then there's the whole role model thing.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 10:36 AM on September 26, 2007


Ok, I am finally compelled to write this. Sacks reflects at great length on his personal experiences- his family of origin, his Jewishness, his own body (in A Leg to Stand On)- why does he never mention his romantic history, and in particular if he's gay?

As I recall, he declares in Uncle Tungsten that his first objects of erotic attachment were the great silvery expanses of the Barrage Balloons of his wartime boyhood, ethnomethodologist.

'He's a genius! Best psychologist in the world! But he is a bit gay, yes,' I would say, if you will insist upon placing him somewhere along that continuum.
posted by jamjam at 10:38 AM on September 26, 2007


He's not a psychologist. He's a neurologist. Just sayin'.
posted by digaman at 10:46 AM on September 26, 2007


As I recall, he declares in Uncle Tungsten that his first objects of erotic attachment were the great silvery expanses of the Barrage Balloons of his wartime boyhood, ethnomethodologist.

Ah, so he's a looner. (Link may or may not be SFW -- I didn't want to find out)

(By the way, what an odd derail this is)

posted by pardonyou? at 11:14 AM on September 26, 2007


And here I thought we'd be talking about the way that my interview totally outs Oliver: about his psychedelic use, back in what he called "his druggy days in California." I found that anecdote pretty fascinating.
posted by digaman at 11:23 AM on September 26, 2007


I find that's a common thread among many of my favorite thinkers--Aldous Huxley and Alan Watts found their psychedelic experiences so meaningful that they wrote short books about them, after all.
posted by LooseFilter at 11:29 AM on September 26, 2007


Why do some straight women want Tom Cruise (or whoever) to be straight?
And then there's the whole role model thing.
Get a grip for goodness sake.
From pp 270 paperback version:
"I had floated on corkboards, or rubber rings, or waterwings before, but this time something magical was happening, a slowly swelling, enormous wave of joy that lifted me higher and higher, seemed to go on and on, forever, and then finally subsided in a languorous bliss. It was the most beautiful, peaceful feeling I ever had.
It was only after I came to take off my swimming trunks that I realised I must have had an orgasm. It did not occur to me to connect this with "sex," or other people."
posted by tellurian at 11:47 AM on September 26, 2007


Indeed.
posted by digaman at 11:49 AM on September 26, 2007


The "indeed" was for the common thread of psychedelics among interesting thinkers -- even Steve Jobs is an acid graduate.
posted by digaman at 11:59 AM on September 26, 2007


This is excellent. Thank you both, digaman and melissa may.
posted by homunculus at 12:03 PM on September 26, 2007


Yes this is fascinating. Loosefilter said it well, as someone whos career is music I'm always interested to hear about music and the brain. A neurologist friend of mine has been trying to get me (and other musically inclined folk) to have MRI's for research. Maybe I should...
posted by ob at 12:09 PM on September 26, 2007


I've recently read about Sack's views on language developing from music, rather than music developing after language and I think he makes a strong case.

I plan to make use of music to try to get in touch with my sometimes there - sometimes not grandmother, for whom music was such a big part of life. His observations resonate with me.
posted by spock at 12:14 PM on September 26, 2007


He's not a psychologist. He's a neurologist. Just sayin'.

I would have said the two are not mutually exclusive, digaman-- and I have a feeling Sacks might agree.
posted by jamjam at 12:17 PM on September 26, 2007


Well sure JJ, I've just never heard him describe himself as a psychologist, and it doesn't quite fit the Sacks I know. You are right, however, in that he's fascinated by psyche, and specifically interested in the work of Freud -- though the one article on Freud by him that I can recall reading was on Freud's pioneering insights into neurology.

I wrote a very in-depth profile of Sacks for Wired in 2002 that gets deeply into his education, personal history, and daily life. Just FYI.
posted by digaman at 12:25 PM on September 26, 2007


I love your work digaman, and I hope my reply was not too barbed; I am aware Sacks is a neurologist by profession, but I chose 'psychologist' to substitute for 'wizard' in the quotation rather than 'neurologist' because I thought Sacks himself would find it comfortable, given his deeply self-effacing and collegial approach to his discipline, to be described as the greatest neurologist in the world even in such a trivial context, and because I do consider him to be our greatest psychologist in the broadest sense that term affords, a more than worthy inheritor of Freud, and the only such we have seen.
posted by jamjam at 12:58 PM on September 26, 2007


'Would not find it comfortable,' that is.
posted by jamjam at 1:00 PM on September 26, 2007


Well said, JJ. I dig it. Thanks.
posted by digaman at 1:07 PM on September 26, 2007


He is one of the great voices of what humanism and scientism means to me. I feel about people very much as Sacks does: I'm analytical, a little bit maladroit, but am not the least alienated from other people at all. I love them in their deep complexity, in the abstract and usually in each individual case. All these sentiments and fascinations are expressed very strongly in Sacks's writing and in his personal presence. I'd give my right arm for him to be my uncle.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:18 PM on September 26, 2007


Thanks digaman, can't wait to read it!
posted by SNACKeR at 1:20 PM on September 26, 2007


Wonderful stuff—thanks, digaman and melissa may!

Sixty years later, on the fifth anniversary of September 11th, I was arrested

That totally didn't go where I was expecting it to go.

posted by languagehat at 2:18 PM on September 26, 2007


Get a grip for goodness sake.

Wow, what a homophobic reaction.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Oliver Sacks is definitely gay. He can sue me.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 2:26 PM on September 26, 2007


Heh, I had the same reaction to that clause and comma, languagehat. It's the kind of thing that copyeditors live to take out, and oughtn't. Or shouldn't. Ahem.
posted by digaman at 2:45 PM on September 26, 2007


Thanks for the post and the writings, you two. I think Sacks is truly a genius who will be appreciated for a long time. His interaction with Luria was quite interesting.

Reading the earlier article, I can only think it would have been great if two of my favorite writers on humanity- Hunter Thompson and Sacks- could have overlapped for a bit while dealing with that interesting group of humanity, the Hell's Angels.

I think the talk of Sacks sexuality isn't the most interesting thing about him, but because of the centrality of sexuality to our minds, I wish he would write of it. Perhaps he is gay and thinks that it is too understood an aspect of humanity to describe. Perhaps it's simple psychology instead of the neurological extremes that he's used to talking about. But, because of his incisiveness and seemingly strange sexuality himself, I'd love if he'd spend some of his writings on this subject, too.

Either way, I'm not going to complain as long as he keeps discovering and writing. Off to the bookstore. Haven't read any of his stuff for a while.
posted by superchris at 6:49 PM on September 26, 2007


Exciting post melissa may! Am a big fan of digaman's work and truly love Oliver Sack's writing. A MeFi trifecta.

How cool to see Sack's IPod Playlist! A delightful peek into his enjoyment.

A while back I did a post called the language of music based on recent research that essential tones of music are rooted in human speech. So it was intriguing to read "For people with Williams, the human, musical, and conversational abilities all seem to go together."

There is an Institute for Music and Brain Science.

Since music intersects feelings, math, words, metaphors, sensation I can only imagine Sacks, who is capable of articulating deliciously complex ideas and experiences, has written lots of interesting stories and insights about music and the brain/mind.

This is a shocker, "It took a mountain of amphetamine, mescaline, and cannabis to launch me into that space. But Monteverdi did it too."

So when did that happen?

Ah, I love his articulating the spiritual/mystical aspect of music:

"because for me, the so-called immaterial and spiritual is always vested in the fleshly — in "the holy and glorious flesh," as Dante said."

and

"One has the feeling of the muse, and the muses are heavenly beings. This feeling is very, very strong with Cicoria, the surgeon in my book who was hit by a bolt of lightning. He felt that he was actually tuning in to the music of heaven — that he had God's phone number. I can't avoid that feeling myself when I listen to Mozart."

and

"I intensely dislike any reference to supernaturalism, but I think there can be profound mystical feelings which do not have to call on fictitious agencies like angels and demons and deities. The whole natural world is bathed in wonder and beauty and mystery. The feeling of the holy, the sacred, the wonderful, the mystical, can be divorced from anything theological, and is conveyed very powerfully in music."

*sigh. I always feel so good after reading his writing. Good about life, about being human, about the beauty in the world about the wonder of everything.

Thanks for this interveiw digaman! Appetite whetted, am looking forward to reading Sacks' upcoming book.
posted by nickyskye at 7:58 PM on September 26, 2007


Great post. Many thanks.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:23 PM on September 26, 2007


Wow. WNYC's Radio Lab had a rerun this week on the subject of "Musical Language". I can't believe nobody linked it. It's great, just like all of their shows.
posted by fungible at 8:52 PM on September 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


(fungible: awesome link, thanks!)
posted by LooseFilter at 9:41 PM on September 26, 2007


A surgeon, an eminent psychoanalyst , an amnesiac musicologist. Does nothing psychologically interesting happen to garbage collectors, postmen or scaffolders?
Or does Sacks not bother with such lowly types?
posted by Joeforking at 11:07 PM on September 26, 2007


Does nothing psychologically interesting happen to garbage collectors, postmen or scaffolders?
Or does Sacks not bother with such lowly types?

Do you have any other strawmen examples?
posted by tellurian at 3:12 AM on September 27, 2007


Nothing interesting ever happens to strawmen.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:07 AM on September 27, 2007


Or does Sacks not bother with such lowly types?

If you look at the body of his work, Sacks has helped a wide spectrum of humanity. Most of his patients in Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat are from pretty average backgrounds: housewives, businessmen -- maybe even a postman or two, I don't recall.

But as might be imagined, the effects of these strange disorders are more remarkable in people who already had some facility or gift related to them. An Anthropologist on Mars is largely made from such examples. "The Last Hippie" was a devoted Deadhead before a brain tumor destroyed his sight and much of his memory and personality; Sacks' account of attending a concert with him, of how he came to life after many years in a shattered state, is quite moving. "To See and Not See" describes an accomplished artist who loses the ability to see color following an accident -- and his sensitivity to that loss is far greater because his technical knowledge is so precise. When Sacks follows a Tourettic surgeon on his rounds in "A Surgeon's Life" -- and then into the sky to see how the surgeon is able to pilot a small plane -- it's a profound illustration of how deeply concentration affects the disorder.

Sacks is drawn to the extremes of human achievement and disorder but it is a serious mistake to assume that he doesn't care for the general run of humanity. I think his greatest clinical strength is that he is far more interested in how people shape disease, rather than starting from a cold set of symptoms and treating the human being possessing them as minor figure, a distraction. It sounds so simple, but when you are a patient with even an uncomplicated chronic disorder, you find that it isn't.

As digaman's profiles show, Sacks himself is difficult to force into any reductive scheme. He has both great technical and emotional intelligence. He is both profoundly shy and incredibly bold. He responds to art and science with equal passion. He'd be far more recognizable among the Victorians, whom we think of as so frigid and suppressed but who produced polymaths and enormously energetic and eccentric geniuses by the score.

He loves people. It's really that simple. He loves them and wants to understand and help them and so he does, without much thought to the rigid, reductive binaries of sick versus well, old versus young, rich versus poor, or even straight versus gay. He loves them so much that he is fundamentally unable to shoehorn even the least expressive or powerful of them into a cheap or convenient stereotype. Of all his many gifts, that is the one I most respect.
posted by melissa may at 6:01 AM on September 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


Well said, melissa.

Joeforking, Sacks still sees the aged, impoverished patients he started seeing through the Little Sisters of the Poor decades ago. So you can put your quick-draw pistol away.
posted by digaman at 6:27 AM on September 27, 2007


Hang on a minute, you lot are reading too much snark into my probably not-too-well phrased question (it was about 0700 and on my way out to work).
I have no more than a passing familiarity with Sacks' work, but AFAIK his stories seem to involve concert pianists etc.
All I wanted was someone to say well story X involved lowly person Y and I've had a few reassurances that he does indeed bother with the lowly. Now that I'm back from hard day work I find that what interested me this morning doesn't now, no offense to anybody. I'm off out for a pint.
So all you hippy gunslingers can find something else to do, thank you melissa for at least answering in a sensible manner. digaman you can relax, and as for tellurian, well...
posted by Joeforking at 9:16 AM on September 27, 2007


Got it, JF.
posted by digaman at 10:29 AM on September 27, 2007


Sure, Joeforking, and apologies if I sounded at all chilly. I could use a pint myself.
posted by melissa may at 12:27 PM on September 27, 2007


Pints all around!

Oh, and one for that strawman over at the table in the corner, too. He's lookin' kinda lonely...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:09 PM on September 27, 2007


digaman + melissa may = awesomeness that is so awesome it's hard to measure


possibly even greater than Sacks's. thanks, guys.
posted by matteo at 5:04 PM on September 27, 2007


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