Musicophilia | Oliver Sacks

The vast amounts of data mined by the human senses are so well organized by the brain, streamlined without conscious effort into perceptions of such clarity, that most of us never think twice about the wonder of it all. How do our two eyes somehow produce one stable image in the brain? Our two ears, one sound? These are the quotidian miracles of our lives, so familiar that we take them for granted.

Musicophilia: Picador, 382 pages, Rs480.

Sacks’ new book, Musicophilia, is a survey of the power of music over the human brain. Our aptitude for music, Sacks remarks, is as deeply hard-wired into us as our aptitude for language—a conundrum that is still being investigated by evolutionary biologists. Although an abstract system of sounds, music exercises enormous influence over our moods and feelings. Not only that, our musical memory is extraordinarily tenacious. We have only to hear a song or tune once to be able to “replay" it in the mind with perfect fidelity to rhythm, pitch and tempo—and can often still recall it years later.

Sacks’ case histories present us with a series of instances of music as both disorder and cure. Among the strangest cases presented by him is that of a doctor called Tony Cicoria who, a few days after being struck by lightning, begins to hear music playing in his head all day long. “It’s like a frequency, a radio band," he explains. “If I open myself up, it comes." Cicoria is suffering from musicophilia, and has been virtually reborn. He had no special interest in music earlier, but now his life is devoted to playing the piano and composing.

Other cases are about people who are not necessarily patients, but more like medical and musical curiosities: People, for instance, who can hear in perfect pitch (such as the five-year-old musical prodigy who insists that “Papa blows his nose in G") or those who experience musical synaesthesia or a confusion of sense impressions, in which each note, for instance, is experienced as a different colour. On the other hand, there are conditions that involve not the advance but the retreat of music. Many of Sacks’ case histories are of highly musical people—many of them professional musicians—who find their working lives disrupted after neurological damage of some sort.

Of these, the most curious and heart-rending case is that of Clive Wearing, an accomplished musician whose capacity for memory is ruined by a brain infection. The effect is not only to destroy Wearing’s capacity for work but, in fact, his entire self. He lives only in the moment (though he is subliminally aware that there is something disastrously wrong about him) and everybody but his wife becomes a stranger. He is incapable of any complex thought, because he cannot keep track of any sequence. Yet, somehow, his musical skills are undiminished—as if stored in a separate bank in his memory—and his acute misery lightens when he plays. Music is a way of filling up his ghastly and eternal present.

The reader will note after a while that there is hardly any episode that ends with the patient being “cured". This is because neurological damage can hardly be reversed; the brain’s balance is so complex that it cannot be reassembled artificially. The cure, where intense suffering is involved, is in helping the patient adapt to his or her condition, make a kind of peace with it. These cures begin with an understanding of the unsettling lack being experienced by the patient and are furthered by the creative use of music.

The flow of music, Sacks repeatedly shows—the manner in which it embodies “will" and intentionality—can have a tonic effect on all kinds of conditions, from Parkinson’s to amnesia to depression. Even where he rummages through complex specialist literature, he synthesizes its meaning in an uncommonly lucid and insightful fashion, and with an eye for the philosophical implications of different biological conditions. Musicophilia is a book that, like a stone thrown into still water, powerfully disturbs our sense of ourselves.

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