Tag Archives: Oliver Sacks

Musical Minds

Oliver Sacks (Wikipedia)Can the power of music make the brain come alive? Watch Passengers (2016)

Throughout his career Dr. Oliver Sacks, neurologist and acclaimed author, whose book Awakenings was made into a Oscar-nominated feature film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, has encountered myriad patients who are struggling to cope with debilitating medical conditions.watch Vacation 2015 movie online now

While their ailments vary, many have one thing in common: an appreciation for the therapeutic effects of music.

NOVA follows four individuals — two of whom are Sacks’s case studies — and even peers into Sacks’s own brain, to investigate music’s strange, surprising, and still unexplained power over the human mind.

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Big Think: Oliver Sacks on Humans and Myth-making

Via Big Think:

Question: Is all religion madness?

Oliver Sacks: I think I need to say that there are specifically some conditions of the brain which predispose to mystical or religious thinking. In particular, when people have so-called temporal lobe epilepsy or temporal lobe seizures, they may have religious or mystical visions. Or even between seizures, they may have a gradual personality change which disposes them to mystical and religious thinking.

I think that thinking of this sort is, if you want, built into the nervous system. Although it doesn’t have to take an explicitly theistic notion.

[Albert] Einstein always used to say that the most beautiful thing in the world is the mysterious. And I think that the fundamental sets of mystery and awe and of the sublime is behind all science and art. Basically, I think, science springs from a sense of nature’s mysteriousness and the wonder of nature. And there is no need to invoke anything supernatural. Indeed, I think too much involvement in the supernatural may blind one to the wonder of nature. And I’m slightly terrified by certain fundamentalist who say, let the planet go to hell, the Final Coming is going to be soon. God will take care of it all.

I live, for myself, happily and completely within nature. I love it. I have a sense of being at home. I don’t pine for anything else. And so, I think, those parts of my temporal lobes are devoted to, as it were, to an almost religious feeling for nature.

See the full interview from 2008 with Sacks here. While on a related note, see Ephiphenom’s recent post on religiosity and the right hemisphere of the brain.

For more on the temporal lobe seizures and religiosity see this bit from V.S. Ramachandran‘s documentary for the BBC called Phantoms in the Brain:

Notes on Musicophilia

Oliver Sacks - Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
The cover shows the author listening to Alfred Brendel's performance of Beethoven's Pathétique Sonata

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (Revised and Expanded) is another fascinating book by Oliver Sacks (earlier books by him which I have read include Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and An Anthropologist on Mars). The book covers a wide range of neurological phenomena related to music.

The book has chapters on sudden musicophilia (for instance a compulsive love of piano music after someone was struck by lightning), musical seizures and musicogenic epilepsy (epilepsy or seizures brought on by hearing music), musical versus visual imagery, brainworms (or earworms) and sticky tunes (or catchy music), musical hallucinations (brought on by loss of hearing), musicality (or musical sensibility).

On mental imagery (of the musical kind) Sacks mentions the following interesting bit:

As I write, in New York in mid-December, the city is full of Christmas trees and menorahs. I would be inclined to say, as an old Jewish atheist, that these things mean nothing to me, but Hanukkah songs are evoked in my mind whenever an image of a menorah impinge on my retina, even when I am not consciously aware of it. There must be more emotion, more meaning here than I allow, even if it is of a mostly sentimental or nostalgic kind.

In the chapter about musical hallucinations, Sacks mentions some articles written by Dr. Leo Rangell (with whom he corresponded) who kept track of his hallucinations for over a decade: Music in the Head: Living at the Brain-Mind Border (part 1, part 2, part 3)

Wikipedia offers a link to a public domain performance of the Sonata Pathétique by Beethoven (see the caption on the book cover) on MusOpen (it requires free registration to download it as 3 320 kbps mp3s totalling 45.5 MB).

A review of Steven Mithen’s book The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body in Empirical Musicology Review. Mithen gets mentioned for his experiment on himself w.r.t. musicality. Unfortunately the original article is behind a paywall. He also gets mentioned in:

Seeking the Key to Music (Science Magazine)
Why did the ability to carry a tune evolve? At an unusual, high-level meeting, researchers pondered whether music helped our ancestors survive and reproduce or whether it is merely a happy evolutionary accident

The Wired article about Michael Chorost and his improved Cochlear implant: My Bionic Quest for Boléro.

Allan Snyder gets mentioned w.r.t. savants and their ability that might be latent in all of us: Explaining and inducing savant skills: privileged access to lower level, less-processed information (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B)


A playlist on YouTube of 10 videos of Oliver Sacks talking about Musicophilia (and some more with interviews).

Musicophilia on fora.tv:

New studies:
Music Aids Alzheimer’s Patients in Remembering New Information.
What makes music sound so sweet (or not).
A new study on ‘the Mozart effect’ which got a mention in the book as well.
Rhythm of life: Music shows potential in stroke rehabilitation
Classical Music an Effective Antidepressant
A special issue on music (ScienceNews)
Study: Love music? Thank a substance in your brain
[…]

Interesting sites/links:
Institute for Music & Brain Science
The Library of Congress: Music and the Brain podcasts

Interesting (new) words: paroxysm, chorea, efferent

To be continued/updated