This is a longer version of the interview that appears in the October issue of Wired magazine.
A surgeon is struck by lightning and becomes obsessed with Chopin. An eminent psychoanalyst is kept awake by hallucinations of a singing rabbi. An amnesiac musicologist incapable of remembering anything that happened more a few seconds ago finds refuge from his disoriented existence by performing Bach fugues.
Music, writes neurologist Oliver Sacks in his new book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, opens a window into almost every aspect of life and brain function. For his previous case-history collections Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Sacks studied the lives of people with disorders like autism and Tourette's syndrome, turning up startling insights about the brain's capacity to heal and adapt. Sacks, 74, shared his thoughts about music in his Greenwich Village office.
Wired: When was the first time you felt deeply affected by music?
Sacks: I grew up in a musical household. My father played piano, my brothers played the flute and clarinet, and we had string trios and quartets in our house. When I was five, I would have said that my favorite things in the world were Bach and smoked salmon. By the time I was a teenager, Mozart would make me want to scream and cry and raptured me.
Wired: How did you discover that music can aid in healing?
Sacks: The therapeutic power of music hit me dramatically in 1966, when I started working with the Awakenings patients at Beth Abraham in the Bronx. I saw post-encephalitics who seemed frozen, transfixed, unable to take a step. But with music to give them a flow, they could sing, dance, and be active again. For Parkinsonian patients, the ability to perform actions in sequence is impaired. They need temporal structure and organization, and the rhythm of music can be crucial. For people with Alzheimer's, music incites recall, bringing the past back like nothing else.
Let me play something for you. This is Woody Geist, who I describe in my new book. He's had Alzheimer's for 40 years, and is profoundly disabled in almost every way, but is a member of an a cappella group called the Grunyons. After I'd written about him, he sang professionally again, and it was beautiful, though people were afraid he'd be lost before the performance. Ten seconds afterwards, he had no memory of it.
[plays "Shooby Doin'," from the Grunyons' CD Just in Time]
Wired: That's beautiful. Art Tatum, Joaquín Rodrigo, Blind Willie McTell, Stevie Wonder — why are there so many great blind musicians?
Sacks: When one is born without a sense or loses it early, one turns to the other senses to construct the richest possible world and identity. People who are born blind seem to develop extraordinary auditory, tactile, and olfactory sensitivities. Absolute pitch [the ability to identify a note without hearing a reference tone] is pretty rare in the general population — maybe 1 in 10,000 have it. In professional musicians it's 1 in 10. But in those born blind, musicians or not, it's nearly 1 in 2. A third of all musical savants are blind. You can be blind without being musical, but there is a correlation.
Wired: When you were growing up, hearing music often required going to see it performed. But iPods make music ubiquitous, like mental air-conditioning. What have we gained or lost by that?
Sacks: At first it would seem to be a wonderful gain. Darwin might have had to go to London to see a concert. But I can't help wondering if the incidence of earworms and musical hallucinations is higher now, with background music in every public place. You can't go to a restaurant without music, and they get offended if you ask them to turn it off. They feel it's part of their creativity — they're doing it for you.
The brain is very sensitive to music; you don't have to attend to it to record it internally and be affected by it. I think we may be exposed to too much loud and repetitive music. One patient of mine has epileptic seizures induced by music and has to wear earplugs in New York City. It's a dangerous place for him.
Wired: You describe Darwin losing his youthful passion for music as his mind became a "machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of fact," as he put it.
Sacks: I'm puzzled by this. As one's mind becomes preoccupied with theoretical or scientific issues, one may have less attention, time or emotion available for other things. But there are lots of highest-power intellectuals who stay interested in music, like Einstein. Darwin may have been as absorbed in thinking about evolution as Freud was absorbed in thinking about psychoanalysis when he went to operas. All of us are apt to get a little desiccated if we don't make a point of holding on to the delights of art and music and landscape. It's very easy to become preoccupied with theorizing and the activities of daily living and stop noticing the beauties of the world.
Wired: From the perspective of neurological development, is it important to give music lessons to your kids?
Sacks: One can become a creative and good human being without music lessons. But it does look as if fairly intensive musical training can promote the development of various parts of the brain, which may facilitate other non-musical cognitive powers.
Wired: In Musicophilia, you describe a camp for children with a genetic disorder called Williams syndrome. Many of the kids there have impaired intellectual skills, but they're also extremely chatty and social, and have heightened musical abilities. Is this correspondence of social and musical abilities just a coincidence?
Sacks: People with Williams are helplessly empathic — they starve if they don't get both human and musical contact. The emotional parts of their brains, like the amygdala, may be unusually large, as well as areas in the temporal lobes concerned with hearing, speech, and music. For people with Williams, the human, musical, and conversational abilities all seem to go together.
Wired: Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker argues that music is an evolutionary accident, "auditory cheesecake" that exploits neural resources which originally evolved to process speech. But your book suggests that certain brain regions are wired specifically to process music.
Sacks: It's not a question that we can resolve easily. One would have to look for aspects of music which have no equivalent in speech. This certainly seems to be true of the regular beat or pulse. Speech has its own rhythm, but it doesn't have the fixed metrical quality of music. There's spontaneous synchronization with rhythm in all human beings, even in childhood. You tap with it, nod with it, and even if you don't, the motor parts of your brain move with it. There's an auditory/motor correlation in human beings not found in any other animal.
Wired: You write that there was a time in med school when you took a lot of amphetamines. What's the most vivid experience of music you ever had on drugs?
Sacks: Hume wondered whether one can imagine a color that one has never encountered. One day in 1964, I constructed a sort of pharmacological mountain, and at its peak, I said, "I want to see indigo, now!" As if thrown by a paintbrush, a huge, trembling drop of purest indigo appeared on the wall — the color of heaven. For months after that, I kept looking for that color. It was like the lost chord.
Then I went to a concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the first half, they played the Monteverdi Vespers, and I was transported. I felt a river of music 400 years long running from Monteverdi's mind into mine. Wandering around during the interval, I saw some lapis lazuli snuffboxes that were that same wonderful indigo, and I thought, "Good, the color exists in the external world." But in the second half I got restless, and when I saw the snuffboxes again, they were no longer indigo — they were blue, mauve, pink. I've never seen that color since.
It took a mountain of amphetamine, mescaline, and cannabis to launch me into that space. But Monteverdi did it too.
Wired: You call yourself an old Jewish atheist in your new book. What is it about music that lends itself to being a catalyst of mystical experience even for people who don't believe in God?
Sacks: Music doesn't represent any tangible, earthly reality. It represents things of the heart, feelings which are beyond description, beyond any experience one has had. The non-representational but indescribably vivid emotional quality is such as to make one think of an immaterial or spiritual world. I dislike both of those words, because for me, the so-called immaterial and spiritual is always vested in the fleshly — in "the holy and glorious flesh," as Dante said.
So if music is not directly representative of the world around us, then what's inspiring it? One has the feeling of the muse, and the muses are heavenly beings. This feeling is very, very strong with Cicoria, the surgeon in my book who was hit by a bolt of lightning. He felt that he was actually tuning in to the music of heaven — that he had God's phone number. I can't avoid that feeling myself when I listen to Mozart. I feel differently about Beethoven. I think of Beethoven as a sweating Prometheus, a terrestrial figure.
I intensely dislike any reference to supernaturalism, but I think there can be profound mystical feelings which do not have to call on fictitious agencies like angels and demons and deities. The whole natural world is bathed in wonder and beauty and mystery. The feeling of the holy, the sacred, the wonderful, the mystical, can be divorced from anything theological, and is conveyed very powerfully in music.
Contributing editor Steve Silberman (firstname.lastname@example.org) wrote about the search for Jim Gray in issue 15.08.
Fuente: Wired magazine
La conplejidad de la mente (Sacks en Redes)