musicophiliaI come from a family of scientists: my parents both have doctorates in microbiology, my brother’s field is bioinformatics (the double-nerd study of biology and computer science), and my sister is currently studying psychology. I grew up on science, I love science – it just happens that I’m a writer. Alas.

As a science family, though, we all deeply love Oliver Sacks. My dad (who also has the writing gene somewhere in there) discovered him years ago and all of us grew up reading his books, with our family-owned dog-eared copy of An Anthropologist on Mars being our collective favorite. (You might be familiar with him from his non-fiction work Awakenings, which was made into a movie starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro).

So, it follows that I got Sack’s new book, Musicaophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, from my dad for Christmas (my brother and sister, funnily enough, both brought copies of the same book with them to read on the plane).

Sacks is, for me, a perfect meeting of a science writer and a writer of creative non-fiction. He has an equal interest in telling an affecting, human story and with exploring how (and why) the brain works. While lots of science writing is dry and objective (as it should be) and while mainstream feature writing often ignores the more complicated science stuff, Sacks is a rare talent who has a penchant for story telling and for explaining the newest research on the brain. He doesn’t condescend, and he doesn’t mind forming personal relationships with his subjects.

In Musicophilia, Sacks focuses on the mysterious and fascinating connection between music and the brain. Through studying musical oddities in patients, he hopes, we can hope to better understand our greater relationship with music – something that, although it is universal among cultures, doesn’t seem to have a clear function or origin.

For example, the book opens with a middle-aged man who is struck by lightening. He isn’t badly hurt, but since the accident, he’s been obsessed with the urge to play the piano. He’s never really played before or had an interest in music, but suddenly he’s up all night composing and trying to get better. Why has this happened? Why is he unaffected except for this urge, which takes over his life? Brain scans show that his left frontal lobe has been damaged and Sacks hypothesizes that the left hemisphere of the brain might actually inhibit the more creative and musical right side of the brain. Left brain damage might lead to more “freedom” in the right brain.

The book moves on from there to cover a huge spectrum of diseases, phenomenones, and rarities – spanning from music therapy for those with dementia and Alzheimer’s, to people who suffer from musical hallucinations, to people with perfect pitch, to people with amusica (to them, music sounds like noise – Nabokov suffered from it), to musical savants. The structures of the chapters are very satisfying to me: they start with a story of an individual and then, by the end of the segment, lead to a more general description of the science behind the patient’s symptoms.

One of the more fascinating chapters covers children with William’s Syndrome, which affects about one out of 10,000 people. These people, who all have strangely elfin features, suffer from severe mental disabilities: they can’t add 5 + 3, they can’t draw a square, they can’t tie their shoes. They have IQs around 60. However, they also tend to be very verbal, very social, and exceptionally musical. Most have perfect pitch and start composing as toddlers. Unlike some cases of severe autism who show a more mechanical and isolated musical talent, patients with William’s Syndrome love to play music in groups – within a community. Sacks visits a camp for children with William’s Syndrome – which is a constant drum circle, sing-along, and musical wrapped up in one.

As in all of his tales, Sacks is sure to find the hope and humanity in even the most difficult patients. One man, an amnesiac who has a short-term memory of only a few seconds, can only stay present within himself while he plays the piano.

More importantly, Sacks doesn’t see his patients as freaks or abnormalities who are simply interesting to read about, but rather as windows into how we can collectively understand how we function. In Musicophilia, I was truly moved by what I read – both by the humanity of the patients and by the awesomeness of the science.

Advertisements