Reading: Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

If you’re not familiar with Oliver Sacks, he’s a neurologist who has sort of popularized the field of brain science in much the same way that Carl Sagan has popularized the field of astronomy. He’s written a tall stack of books detailing the unique cases he has come across in his profession, and providing a unique insight into what it is to be human.

Musicophilia Cover
Musicophilia Cover

His latest book, Musicophilia, is a look at the relationship between the human brain and music — an a unique relationship it turns out to be. For instance, you know how you occasionally get one of those obnoxious jingles stuck in the musical part of your brain. “Have it yooooour way, have it your way…” all day long? Now imagine the same thing, only not in that slightly muffled music area of your brain, but concious, as if a radio was playing, but only you could hear it. Sacks details people who live with this issue everyday — music playing in their head that only they can hear, and that in some cases is impossible to disregard. And in many cases, it’s not even music the person particularly likes! ACK! Contiunuously tuned into the Brittney Spears station on ethereal radion would surely drive me mad.

And yet, for every tale of something that seems a malady, Sacks tells a story of something unique and sublime about the human relationship with music. Alzheimer’s patients who can still perform beautiful, passionate music, or can at least sing their favorite songs. Children with Williams Syndrome, who almost seem, from Sack’s description to be elvish — another species, tremendously friendly and likeable, with a love of the melodies and rhythms of music.

I have to say I really found the book both frightening and fascinating. I’ve read bits about Buddhist wisdom where they basically describe the world as an illusion created by the self. I’m sure at first glance, most people dismiss that as being kind of self-centered philosophy. “Oh, there’s just me and everything else is my imagination.” But the brain science in Sack’s book makes it a lot easier to understand what’s being said there. Everything we see, or hear, or sense in any way is the result of our brain intepreting changes in the environment around us through our senses and our preconceptions. When Sacks talks in his book about the people who are hearing music in their heads as if it were real and present, you begin to realize that the sensory system we depend on to show us “truth” cannot always be depended upon. It’s a scary notion, but manageable, when you wrap yourself around the idea. Everyone really is an individual that sees the world in a unique way depending on their basic physical hardware and their personality or self. It becomes a more challenging thought to walk in someone else’s shoes then, since, because they have had a whole different set of experiences during their lifetime, and their senses might work a little differently, there are differences between us (even if we are all human).

It’s not all sort of confusing and dark, though, as music really is a transcendent force as portrayed in the book. It’s amazing that the fact that music develops sort of separately from things like speech and memory, makes it something that can be helpful in the rehabilitation of stroke victims, or can make the life of those with dementia happier. It can even make it easier to connect with a loved one with those challenges by providing a common ground.

I’ve been trying to make music a bigger part of my life, since it does seem to bring a shared happiness to people. Musicophilia confirmed for me that I should continue in this path as musical skills are something one can share long into your life. Music brings hope, and hope is often what life is made from.