I find anything in the medical field pretty interesting, and neurology is the most fascinating area of it. Ever since ‘Awakenings’, Sacks has been a favorite author of mine. He brings the odd and miraculous things that can happen to the human brain to the average reader in an engaging style that is neither confusing nor pedantic. In this book, he explores music and the brain and finds some very interesting things.
For instance, a person can have musical hallucinations. These are not to be confused with ‘earworms’, those damnable jingles that repeat themselves over and over and over in your head, but are clearly part of your mind. Musical hallucinations truly seem to be real and coming from the outside world. These can be brought on by stroke, TIAs, epilepsy, migraine, blows to the head and certain quite common drugs, including aspirin. Some of these disappear after the cause is treated, but some continue for years, quite loudly, sometimes making it difficult to make out what is being said in the real world. When the brain is observed by PET scans, these musical hallucinations prove to activate the same areas of the brain as are active when hearing actual music. No one knows yet how they are produced, but it can be verified that they really do occur.
Just as the brain can create music on it’s own, so too it can ruin it, making one hear a formerly loved piece of music as screeching, clanging and just plain unpleasant. When a person is born blind or becomes blind very early in life, the visual cortex (a sizeable part of the brain) is reallocated to other senses- especially hearing- the area of the brain usually used for vision is activated when they hear music. A man made amnesiac by encephalitis, losing both the memories of his past and the ability to lay down new memories (think ’50 First Dates’), retains his ability to play music and even to learn new music, even though if you ask him, he does not remember being able to do it. Some people who have developed expressive aphasia- the inability to speak despite having intact vocal equipment- can sometimes sing (and swear!). One thing that disappointed me was that he never stated whether the music they sing can actually express what they want to convey- say, picking a love song to sing to a spouse, or a sad song to say that they are depressed- or if it is just words.
Highly rhythmic music can synchronize the erratic movements of a person with Tourette’s, and some Touretters tics disappear when they are playing or composing. Parkinson’s victims can have their movement disorder smoothed out by hearing- or even imagining- music. Even some of the ‘frozen’ post-encephalitic patients from ‘Awakenings’ who had no voluntary movement could be given momentary freedom by music. Sadly, when the music stops, so does its effects.
Music has very deep roots in the brain and its effects can be incredible, almost unbelievable. This book is a fascinating read if you’ve any interest at all in the human brain.