The rhythm method

Oliver Sacks studies a technique for helping brain-damaged patients: playing music.


THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON MUSIC Sacks tunes in. Elena Seibert

Sitting in his tidy Greenwich Village office, Dr. Oliver Sacks carries the distinguished mien of someone who knows that his books have inspired the movie Awakenings and led to a stint as a regular contributor to The New Yorker. The British-born neurologist is now 74, but he still speaks with a quiet enthusiasm about the patients he has helped—many famously described in books such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat—and still gushes with a sense of wonder about the brain’s flexibility.

His tenth and latest book, Musicophilia, finds him venturing into more harmonious psychological territory, examining how music works on (and in) the human mind.

“I think the human brain is very much geared and tuned to the perception of music, the imagination of music, the memory of music,” he says. “This tends to persist in the brain even when almost everything else has been wiped out.”

He smiles and selects a track on his stereo to offer an example, finding a cover of “Shooby Dooin’ ” performed by Woody Geist, a patient who has suffered from Alzheimer’s for decades but who sings with the polish of a suave ballroom crooner. “You can have profoundly demented people, like Woody here, who are still able to sing beautifully,” Sacks says. “But if you asked him if he knew this particular song, he might not recognize the title or the question or be able to answer.”

Musicophilia contains many other stories about neurologically damaged people who have lost their memory, and sometimes their ability to speak, but are still able to remember and produce music. One meningitis patient named Martin, born with severe visual problems, can remember more than 2,000 operas. He’s capable not only of mimicking pieces he has only just recently heard, but translating them into other keys. An English musicologist named Clive Wearing suffered severe amnesia, but despite not being able to remember the names of recent prime ministers, he can still play and sing music with grace and feeling.

Sacks believes that these patients still respond to songs because music has rhythmic and modal qualities that enable it to get into the auditory cortex more effectively than any other sensory mode. Music, in other words, can be a powerful neurological trigger for patients suffering from dementia, Williams Syndrome or brain trauma.

Though the specific correlation between music and the mind is still under scientific investigation, Sacks points to recent innovations like melodic intonation therapy, a laborious procedure that involves stimulating portions of the right hemisphere over hundreds of hours to aid people who have lost their ability to speak. “It may be possible for them to somehow retrieve language, which was previously automatic, and to relearn it using the right hemisphere of the brain,” Sacks says. “Now this is staggering! Five years ago, this would not have been thought possible.”

Sacks’s study looks at how music affects healthy brains, too. Most people have experienced what the neurologist calls a “brainworm”—that nagging tune or melody you can’t get out of your head. In some extreme cases, songs can dominate a person’s thoughts so drastically that they become a hallucination indistinguishable from actual perception—“so loud as to drown out the world,” Sacks says.

He describes a hallucination he personally experienced while holed up in a hospital recovering from leg surgery. He woke up hearing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, music he had played repeatedly while recuperating. “Finally, I stretched out a sleepy arm to turn it off, and it wasn’t on,” he recalls.

The craving for music, Sacks argues, is one key characteristic that separates humans from lower animals. “One suspects that music may have evolved in the nervous system initially in terms of rhythm,” he says. “It’s very unusual to meet people who don’t have a sense of rhythm. I think rhythm is the primordial basis of music, or one of them.”

Still, humans’ reliance on music can lead to what Sacks thinks of as inhuman behavior. He is puzzled, for instance, by people who willfully drown out the world with their iPods. “They walk across the traffic,” Sacks says. “They walk in front of bikes. They don’t talkto people. I love music as a supplement to life, but not as a substitute for life.”

Musicophilia (Knopf, $26) is out now. Sacks speaks on Thu 25