In recent years, the fields of neuroscience and neurobiology have expanded greatly. The technological resources of many different and sophisticated types of brain imaging have aided this expansion. Now insights from neuroscience are contributing to almost every area of human activity and aspect of the human condition. This knowledge of neuroscience is not limited to a minority of scientists. Increasingly popular scientific literature is making the advances of neuroscience available to a wider audience.
Music is one area of human life that has engaged the interest, attention, and imagination of people throughout history. The title of Oliver Sacks’s book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain addresses this very issue. In the preface, Sacks states: “This propensity to music shows itself in infancy, is manifest and central in every culture, and probably goes back to the very beginnings of our species.” By the term “musicophilia” he means that music “lies so deep in human nature that one must think of it as innate.”
However, the question about music has always concerned how we apprehend music. How do our brains integrate the complex aspects of musical experience? Music engages many areas of the brain. Music activates the auditory sense. We perceive its structure. It is deeply embedded in memory. Even listening involves and evokes motor responses. Most famously and mysteriously, music stirs deep and varied emotions. In addition, if music is so central to our whole being, why do some people have such prodigious musical talents while others seem to be lacking these abilities? Neuroscience is a field that is well suited to make significant new contributions toward addressing these central questions about music and the human mind.
In Musicophilia, Sacks does not tackle these big questions directly. Rather, the subtitle of his book indicates his approach. Much as in his other nine books, he collects narratives of cases that he has encountered as a neurologist that demonstrate varying aspects of the effects of music on the brain. This presentation has advantages and disadvantages. One positive aspect is that, unlike other books in which neuroscience takes center stage with illustrative case examples, Sacks is able to bring a human face to the sometimes arcane neurobiology of music. Indeed, many of the people that the reader meets through Sacks’s stories have inspiring tales of the power of music to ameliorate suffering and to help overcome disabilities. At the same time, disadvantages include the fragmentary organization and lack of broader analytical perspective.
Sacks presents his material in twenty-nine chapters. Most of the chapters address a topic with several cases illustrating the individual variations on the basic theme. For instance, in “Part II: A Range of Musicality,” Sacks devotes one chapter to the phenomenon of synesthesia and music. Synesthesia refers to a true mixing of the senses. With music, one manifestation of synesthesia is the way some people see or perceive color as integral to the experience of music. Thus, one musician specifically associates a color with a musical key. Another person who is not a musician associates color with light, shape, and position. She says of this imagery: “A chord will envelop me.” Sacks also discusses scientific work on synesthesia but reaches no conclusions. Rather, he leaves the chapter open-ended about the neurobiology of synesthesia and the varying attitudes of synesthetes toward the role of this phenomenon in their lives.
Although none of the chapters are lengthy, most of them leave the reader with some food for thought. Some of the chapters are less satisfying, and a few are so brief that one wonders about the reason for their inclusion. An example is chapter 17, “Accidental Davening: Dyskinesia and Cantillation,” which is only two pages in length. Sacks does not explain what dyskinesia and cantillation are. The example goes nowhere. This interlude seems puzzling and discordant.
Although there is some mixture of more positive aspects of music and the brain, the first two parts of the book, “Part I: Haunted by Music” and “Part II: A Range of Musicality,” focus on the ways that musicophilia can become an affliction. Sacks tells of several cases that show how music can provoke seizures, a condition called musicogenic epilepsy. Sacks cites the...
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