I just finished reading “Musicophilia” by Oliver Sacks. It is worth noting that the subtitle is “Tales of Music and the Brain.” In this highly informative book, Sacks, a physician and neuroscientist, describes case after case where brain damage or disease has altered an individual’s perceptions and/or functional capabilities in significant ways, especially in relation to music. After reading the book, I have both a greater appreciation for the influence of music on our brains and lives, and on the complexity involved in its processing. Sacks quotes a letter in his book as saying, “I’ve read many times that music is a whole other reality.” I am starting to understand this. The book begins with the story of a man who had little interest in music. However, after being struck by lightning, he developed a sudden craving for piano music. He even taught himself to play piano and a major aspect of his life since has been composing music for the piano. It reminded me ever so slightly of my own rather sudden conversion late in life to loving opera (no fireworks were involved). Many of Dr. Sacks’ stories not only relate how changes in the brain wipe out functions, but also how they can give such patients new ones. The principal, though not only, explanation appears to be that the brain has neurons that repress or modulate functions as well as neurons that activate functions. So, damage to the brain for example can damage the repressor neurons and allow a new function to come to the fore. This raises the exciting prospect that in the future we may be able to have more direct control in turning on functional capabilities that lie hidden in our brains.
Dr. Sacks also discusses cases where music allows access to parts of patient lives that have been lost to disease or injury. Some patients with dementia can recall and play complete musical pieces, and some Parkinson’s patients can move smoothly, dancing to music; music is used as therapy in these cases. It is clear that music has its own composition in our brains, separate from though connected to other types of intellectual, emotional, and motor functions. It is a fascinating field of study. In a very poignant chapter, Dr. Sacks discusses children who have Williams Syndrome. Children borne with this syndrome face many physical and mental challenges in life. Deficits in cognitive function are pronounced. These children, however, typically are extremely loquacious and social, making friends readily. They also are typically very attuned to music and often have musical gifts. I found one child's story especially touching in that she loved storytelling as well as music and wanted “…a dramatic accompaniment of words and actions rather than “pure” music.” That is a connection I can relate to. These children live in their own realities, about which I am reluctant to make judgments. Some of their abilities I envy. Perhaps we who enjoy opera live in a communal reality, firmly supported by our brain structures, that links us to each other as well as satisfying our own individual needs.