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Library-Botany Lecture

Oliver Sacks, 2001

Previous Speakers

Music Healing and the Brain

Visit Sacks' website

"I have always been a great fan of libraries," Sacks began. He fondly recalled the library of his youth. "It was deceptively small outside, but vast inside, with dozens of alcoves and bays full of books that I had never seen in my life. Once the librarian was assured I could handle the books and use the card index, she gave me the run of the library and allowed me to order books from the central library and even sometimes to take rare books out. My reading was voracious but unsystematic: I skimmed, I hovered, I browsed..."

Dr. Sacks' interest in music also began at a young age. He and his brothers took lessons for a variety of instruments. "As a child, it seemed to me that the house was full of music. There were two Bechsteins, an upright and a grand, and sometimes both were being played simultaneously, to say nothing of David's flute and Marcus's clarinet. At such times the house was a veritable aquarium of sound, and I would become aware of one instrument and then another as I walked about. The different instruments did not seem to clash, curiously; my ear, my attention, would always select one or another."

Sacks pulled examples from several of his books to illustrate how his childhood interest in music developed into his notoriously unorthodox music therapies.

The Power of Music

His first book, Awakenings, tells the story of a group of patients struck with a form of encephalitis. These individuals spent their days in a comatose state. They did not speak and rarely moved. When they attempted to walk, they could only take uncontrolled stuttering steps.

Sacks was convinced that someone was still inside what others thought was only a shell of a person. He thought perhaps music could bring them out. He was right. With the right music playing, they could modulate their stuttering steps; they could even dance.

In the case history "The Last Hippie," Sacks worked with a patient who had a large brain tumor removed. After the surgery, he remembered the early 60's clearly, only bits of the late 60's and nothing after 1970. Sacks knew his patient was a big Grateful Dead fan. When he learned the band would be in concert nearby, he bent some rules and seized the moment. Sacks snuck his patient out of the hospital that night and took him to the concert.

The patient loved the beginning of the concert, which had older music. He danced and sang along. As they got to newer music, he seemed confused. He said "It's like the music of the future." The next day, he had no recollection of the concert or Madison Square Garden, but when Sacks played the music he was able to sing along to the new music he had heard the night before, although he did not recognize where he had ever heard it.

In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, one of Sacks' patients lost the ability to identify everyday objects or perform everyday tasks. However, he found that while singing to himself, he was able to concentrate on the steps and do things otherwise impossible for him. "He had a song for dressing, a song for eating, a song for bathing. If the song was interrupted he could not complete the task. He would not recognize his clothes or even his own body."

Music Heals the Musician

Many patients had a special relationship with music before Dr. Sacks treated them. He once worked with a composer suffering from Tourette's Syndrome. The most common symptom of Tourette's is tics. The composer found he did not tic while he conducted.

The composer's peers thought his tics would make it impossible for him to lead an orchestra. After much convincing, though, he was allowed to conduct his own work in a public performance. He was able to conduct the entire three-hour concert without a single tic. As soon a he stepped off stage, a storm of tics hit him.

Sacks has noticed many performers will not tic in the performance. Musicians and athletes both seem to find relief in performing.

Another patient had been an excellent pianist before having a severe stroke, which damaged part of her brain. She was confined to a wheelchair and had trouble communicating. Even after the stroke, she could sit at a piano and play Shopan or Chopin. All Sacks had to do was name a piece and she would begin to play. While playing, her brain waves returned to normal.

One could only mention a piece she knew well and she'd begin to imagine it. She could imagine the music so well, that while it played in her head, her brain waves returned to normal.

The Doctor Becomes the Patient

Sacks had a personal experience with the healing power of music as well. He tore a hamstring muscle. He thought after surgery he'd be able to walk without difficulty, but he was wrong. It took great effort to walk; steps tended to be too big or too small. He had to keep his leg locked to support his weight.

During a physical therapy session, he became distracted as music played. Suddenly he realized he was walking normally. When the music stopped, so did his ability to walk with ease.

According to Dr. Sacks, there is no one kind of music with the most therapeutic value. Music that is special to the individual will always have the best effect.


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