College Quarterly
Summer 2008 - Volume 11 Number 3
Reviews Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
Oliver Sacks
New York: Knopf, 2008

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Those familiar with the clinical accounts and autobiographical musings of Oliver Sacks already know him to be a writer of enormous kindness and sensitivity, a humane man of science whose great gifts not only include the ability to communicate with non-scientists, but also to make science matter to readers with neither a background nor even a particular interest in his specialty of neurology. Like any popularizer of science, Sacks has his critics. A master of what composer and Chicago Symphony Orchestra creative program advisor Gerard McBurney calls “haute vulgarization,” he suffers disrespect from purists who dismiss his personal ruminations on serious clinical issues (delivered in an easy conversational tone) as exercises in trivialization and over-simplification. To them, he turns the serious business of mental illness into a sort of carnival freak-show.

Sacks addresses topics as diverse as synesthesia, amusia, epilepsy and dementia, and that he delivers clinical case studies of Tourette’s, Parkinson’s and Williams syndromes in language that is accessible to an audience lacking technical knowledge in neurology. He also speaks knowledgably about the common thread of music that links the cases discussed in Musicophilia in ways that that do not fluster folks who know little or nothing about musical composition. In fact, he is as likely to take his cues from Nietzsche and Tolstoy (or the amusiac author Vladimir Nabokov) as from scientists or musical geniuses whose technical expertise might quickly lose the ordinary reader. Moreover, when he does explore such matters as neuroscience, he alerts the thoughtful reader to fresh research insights such as the visibility of musical talents using the multiple resonance imaging technology without demanding prior knowledge of the methodology or the machinery involved. So, we learn that “anatomists are hard put to identify the brain of a visual artist, a writer or a mathematician—but they could recognize the brain of a professional musician without a moment’s hesitation.” The implications of this observation for human evolutionary theory and the crucial part that music played in the emergence of our hominin (non-australopithicine) ancestors are tremendous and easily grasped.

Like earlier books such as Awakenings (made into an award-winning motion picturing starring Robert DeNiro and featuring Robin Williams’ portrayal of a character based on Dr. Sacks), The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and other “tales” of real-life cases in psychiatric facilities, Musicophilia explores the scientific causes and the experiential and expressive consequences of mental peculiarities. It is this capacity to link medical practice to the everyday lives of allegedly “normal” people that is Sacks’ most endearing quality.

My first encounter with him came a quarter-century ago. In an article from The Medical Post with the somewhat disconcerting title, “If You Want to Understand Ronnie, You Must Be Brain-Damaged,” Sacks explored the unique ability of aphasiacs (people who had lost the capability of understanding spoken words, but who were highly sensitized to “body language”) to assess authenticity and honesty in communication. Exposed to the broadcast of a speech being delivered by former US president Ronald Reagan, they saw it as a contrived pack of lies, without comprehending a single word he said. Since then, I have read many of Sack’s stories. They do not pretend to impart highly sophisticated professional knowledge, much less to advance the boundaries of medical research, but each is informative, and most contain “morals” that are far from trivial.

Some may find this form of narrative too easy, leading to little more than good bathroom or beach reading. It can, admittedly, seem not a great deal more than a compilation of vignettes with frequent explanatory asides, but no powerful thesis nor gripping narrative structure. One rather unkind reviewer says that Musicophilia borders on “tourism, at times traveling through the material, repeatedly leaving stranded those readers hungry for a deft handing of the cui bono (or so what?) of music and the mind.” Some might add that Sacks’ relentless sweetness betrays a personality with almost too much empathy, a disturbingly cloying quality that is unsettling to those who are compassion-challenged, especially in the presence of manifest abnormality.

That said, there are abundant rewards to be won by the attentive, non-professional reader. Taken for what it is, no more but no less than inspired journalism, Musicophilia is consistently charming and often inspirational. In the process of engaging encounters with people with unusual gifts and challenges, a surprising amount of medical knowledge is subtly and painlessly transferred to the amateur, and a good amount of decency is put on open display, perhaps one day to be incorporated into the bedside manner of a previously cold-blooded physician.

Above all, problems such as musical hallucinations and amnesia are made comprehensible, and the people who endure them are revealed not as exotic, but as fully human, and occasionally more so than everyone else. With this in mind, a second major theme of the book is therapy—the value that music can have when used to ameliorate the symptoms of people suffering from neurological disorders, strokes and even Alzheimer’s disease.

Throughout, we can rely on the firm but gentle voice of Dr. Oliver Sacks, who is said to carry with him a credit card-sized reproduction of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements to reassure himself—when the going gets tough on the psychiatric ward—that there is innate order in the universe. Reading his tales almost convinces me that this is so.


Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at howard.doughty@senecac.on.ca

Reviews

• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
Copyright ©
2008 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology